Russian separatists give death sentences to 2 Britons, Moroccan who fought for Ukraine

Two British citizens and a Moroccan were sentenced to death Thursday for fighting on Ukraine's side, in a punishment handed down by the country's pro-Moscow rebels.

Ukraine, West blast sentences handed down in Donetsk People's Republic

A still image, taken from footage of the Supreme Court of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic on Tuesday, shows, from left to right, Britons Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner and Moroccan Brahim Saadoun. (Supreme Court of Donetsk People's Republic/Reuters)

Two British citizens and a Moroccan were sentenced to death Thursday for fighting on Ukraine's side, in a punishment handed down by the country's pro-Moscow rebels.

The proceedings against the three captured fighters were denounced by Ukraine and the West as a sham and a violation of the rules of war.

Meanwhile, as Russian forces continuing a grinding war of attrition in the east, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to liken his actions to those of Peter the Great in the 18th century and said the country needs to "take back" historic Russian lands.

A court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic found the three men guilty of working toward a violent overthrow of power, an offence punishable by death in the unrecognized republic. They were also convicted of mercenary activities and terrorism.

Russia's state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the three — Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and Brahim Saadoun — are set to face a firing squad. They have a month to appeal.

Viewed as 'mercenaries' by separatists

The separatists had claimed that the three fighters are "mercenaries" not entitled to the usual protections afforded prisoners of war. They are the first foreign fighters sentenced by Ukraine's Russian-backed rebels.

A Ukrainian tank is seen driving in the Donetsk region on Thursday. (Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press)

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko condemned the proceedings as legally invalid, saying: "Such show trials put the interests of propaganda above the law and morality."

He said that all foreign citizens fighting as part of Ukraine's armed forces should be considered Ukrainian military personnel and protected as such.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss pronounced the sentencing a "sham judgment with absolutely no legitimacy." Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman Jamie Davies said that under the Geneva Conventions, POWs are entitled to immunity as combatants.

Saadoun's father, Taher Saadoun, told the Moroccan online Arab-language newspaper Madar 21 that his son is not a mercenary and that he holds Ukrainian citizenship.

Aslin and Pinner's families have said that the two men were long-serving members of the Ukrainian military.

The three men fought alongside Ukrainian troops. Pinner and Aslin surrendered to pro-Russian forces in the southern port of Mariupol in mid-April and Saadoun was captured in mid-March in the eastern city of Volnovakha.

Another British fighter taken prisoner by the pro-Russian forces, Andrew Hill, is awaiting trial.

The Russian military has argued that foreign mercenaries fighting on Ukraine's side are not combatants and should expect long prison terms, at best, if captured.

Further expansion by Russia?

In other developments, Putin drew parallels between Peter the Great's founding of St. Petersburg and modern Russia's ambitions.

A Ukrainian soldier fires from a machine gun at a position on the front line, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near the town of New York, Ukraine, in the Donetsk region. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

When the czar founded the new capital, "no European country recognized it as Russia. Everybody recognized it as Sweden," Putin said. He added: "What was [Peter] doing? Taking back and reinforcing. That's what he did. And it looks like it fell on us to take back and reinforce as well."

Putin also appeared to leave the door open for further Russian territorial expansion.

"It's impossible — Do you understand? — impossible to build a fence around a country like Russia. And we do not intend to build that fence," he said.

Also Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that France was ready to send more "heavy weapons" to Ukraine, according to Macron's office. French officials did not elaborate on the weaponry. The phone conversation came after Macron angered Ukrainian officials by saying world powers should not "humiliate" Putin.

Mourners attend the funeral of Ukrainian soldier Oleksandr Suvorov in Kyiv on Thursday. Suvorov was recently killed in a vehicle while fighting the Russian invasion in the eastern Donbas region. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

On the battlefield Thursday, fierce fighting dragged on in the city of Severodonetsk in a battle that could help determine the fate of the Donbas, Ukraine's industrial heartland in the east. Moscow-backed separatists already held swaths of the Donbas before the invasion, and Russian troops have gained more.

To the north of the Donbas, residents of Kharkiv — Ukraine's second-largest city — reported what appeared to be cruise missile strikes on the northeastern city. One hit a supermarket. Another hit a coke plant. No details were immediately available.