Lisa Haseldine

How Russia’s press covered the death sentence of two British fighters

How Russia's press covered the death sentence of two British fighters
(l-r) Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and Saaudun Brahim (Credit: Telegram)
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Two Brits and a Moroccan national captured while fighting for Ukraine have been sentenced to death by a court in Russian-controlled eastern Ukraine. Accused of being ‘mercenaries’ committed to ‘carrying out acts of terrorism’ and ‘seizing power by force’, Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and Brahim Saadoun have a month to appeal the sentence handed down by the Supreme Court of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).

Widely considered a show trial by the West, the Russian media covered the fighters’ court case with earnest gravity. Now their sentence has been handed down, Russia’s coverage has only expanded, capitalising on the propaganda opportunities it has brought them.

In an ‘exclusive interview’ recorded at an unknown point before the conclusion of the trial, but published following the verdict, Aiden Aslin can be seen speaking to the Russian state broadcaster RT. In it, he speaks of feeling ‘abandoned’ by the British and Ukrainian government. Another segment of the interview, written up by the online pro-Putin newspaper reports that he goes on to ‘reveal’ that the Ukrainian army is supposedly badly trained, unprofessional and full of alcoholics.

Interviews under duress are a tried and tested tactic in the Putin propaganda playbook - just in April, YouTube agreed to take down a previous interview of Aslin’s after claims that footage of him speaking in captivity broke the Geneva Convention. At the time of writing, RT’s most recent interview remains online.

On its website, the Kremlin-supporting broadsheet Izvestiya went a step further, posting a video of the three fighters in the direct aftermath of their sentence being read out. It shows them standing in a courtroom cage, looking gaunt and ashen-faced. Although only Saadoun speaks in the recording, the video demonstrates the degree to which the Russian media have turned the trial into a macabre spectacle. It’s inhumane and denies the captured fighters of any dignity or respect.

As part of justifying their support of the DNR court’s decision to issue the death penalty, many Russian outlets have taken it upon themselves to launch a smear campaign against the fighters.

According to the tabloid paper Komsomolskaya Pravda, neither the British nor Moroccan governments ‘care’ about the fate of their citizens. It quotes Denis Pushilin, head of the DNR, who said he has had no contact from either government looking to negotiate on the fighters’ behalf, going on to call their death sentences ‘fair’. This is despite consistent efforts by the British government to secure their release since their capture in April.

Another article, once again by RT, falsely claims that Pinner is ‘recognised as a terrorist and wanted’ in Britain for taking part in the wars in Iraq and Syria. A typical example of Russian disinformation in action, the article conveniently excludes the fact that Pinner used to serve in the British Armed forces.

Unfortunately, that the Russian media would treat the heart-wrenching fate of these men as a morbid propaganda circus is no surprise.