Moroccan national Brahim Saadoun is “not a mercenary,” his close friend Muiz Avghonzoda told DW in an exclusive interview, as outrage grows over a death sentence he was handed by the pro-Russian, self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR).

Avghonzoda said Saadoun was fighting in the war in Ukraine as an enlisted soldier of that country. 

“I have all the copies of his documents, all those contracts signing with the armed forces of Ukraine,” Avghonzoda said.

“He signed that contract in November of 2021,” he added.

Saadoun, along with Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin, both British nationals, were fighting alongside Ukrainian forces when they were detained in the besieged city of Mariupol in April. 

“The last time I talked to him, that was March 27. And since then, I haven’t heard anything for him,” Avghonzoda said.

“On April 17, I figured out that he was captured by seeing a video of him being interviewed while he surrendered,” he added.

Russian state agency RIA Novosti reported that all three men had confessed to taking part in training for “terrorist activities,” with Pinner and Saadoun allegedly also pleading guilty to acts aimed at a violent takeover of the government in DNR.

Saadoun ‘a victim’ of the war

Avghonzoda said his friend had not been able to find a job, when he sought to join the military in Ukraine. “He was at university, but still he was feeling useless. So he wanted to do something useful.” Saadoun also wanted to gain some military experience. 

RIA Novosti has reported that Saadoun and the other two men will face a firing squad, but that they still have a month to appeal the sentences.

The pro-Moscow Donbas separatists have argued that the three were “mercenaries” and thus, did not deserve the usual protections accorded prisoners of war. 

Saadoun and the two British nationals would be the first foreign fighters sentenced by Ukraine’s Russian-backed rebels.

“He’s a victim of DPR [DNR] playing games, a victim of Russia, a victim of this war,” Avghonzoda said. He has begun a campaign to advocate for Saadoun’s freedom by appealing to the international community.

UN: sentences could be war crime

The UN Human Rights Office expressed concern about the death sentences handed to the three foreign fighters, adding that unfair trials of prisoners of war amounted to war crimes.

“The UN Human Rights Office is concerned about the so-called Supreme Court of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic sentencing three servicemen to death,” spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters in Geneva.

“These were citizens of foreign countries who were captured in Mariupol for being mercenaries. According to the chief command of Ukraine, all the men were part of the Ukrainian armed forces. If that is the case, they should not be considered as mercenaries,” Shamdasani added.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss slammed the sentences as “a sham judgement, with absolutely no legitimacy.” 

Germany expressed “shock” over the death sentences, in a tweet by the foreign ministry.

“As combatants they are prisoners of war & entitled to special protections under the Geneva Convention. Shows once more Russia’s complete disregard for int. humanitarian law,” Berlin tweeted.

But Russia shot back at the criticism of the separatist republics that have its support. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the three men had committed crimes on the territory of the self-proclaimed breakaway state.

Russia’s Foreign ministry criticized the UK’s response, with spokeswoman Maria Zakharova saying in a statement that the UK’s reaction to such cases was “often hysterical.”

Interview conducted by DW’s Phil Gayle

Edited by: Rebecca Staudenmaier

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