Two Britons and a Moroccan who had fought for the Ukrainian armed forces were sentenced to death by a court in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine on Thursday after being accused of being mercenaries, the agency reported. Russian press Interfax.

The death sentences were the disturbing latest step in a trial that has alarmed human rights advocates and Western governments, raising questions about the protections given to thousands of foreign-born fighters serving in Ukraine. , some of whom were taken prisoner on the battlefield.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss wrote on Twitter that the court’s verdict was a “fictional judgment without any legitimacy”. A British Member of Parliament called the proceedings a “Soviet-style show trial”.

Prosecutors had accused the three men – Aiden Aslin, 28, Shaun Pinner, 48, and Saadoun Brahim – of being mercenaries and terrorists who sought to violently overthrow the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, one of the two separatist regions of eastern Ukraine that Russia has recognized.

But defenders for the three men said all three immigrated to Ukraine, made their home there and fought for their adopted country’s military before being ensnared in what appeared to be a show trial .

The harsh penalties received a quick and furious rebuke from the British government. A spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “POWs should not be exploited for political gain”, according to the BBC.

Legal experts said the death sentences appeared calculated to discourage foreign volunteers, including Americans, from joining the Ukrainian military by stripping them of the protections given to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

But on Thursday, judicial authorities in the Donetsk People’s Republic, where Russian-allied forces have been fighting Ukrainian troops since 2014, doubled down on their claim that the men were violent mercenaries deserving of death.

Prosecutors claimed that the three men were guilty of “training for terrorist activities” and that they undertook their activities “for remuneration”.

Alexander Nikulin, chairman of the board of the Appeals Chamber of the Supreme Court of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said the men intended to overthrow the region’s de facto government, which is allied with Moscow and which Ukraine, along with much of the rest of the world, does not consider legitimate.

Mr Nikulin said the court found the men guilty and sentenced them to death after they pleaded guilty to the mercenary charges.

“In pronouncing the sentence, the court used not only written regulations and rules, but also the main and unshakeable principle of justice,” he told reporters, according to Interfax. Men have one month to appeal.

During a hearing on Wednesday, the three men stood in a glass cage in a courtroom in Donetsk, the region’s capital, according to video released by the Russian government. All three were asked if they would plead guilty to the charges, and each said yes.

Interfax said Mr Pinner and Mr Aslin traveled to the southern port city of Mariupol in April, while Mr Brahim visited the eastern city of Volnovakha in March.

The British Prime Minister’s office has pointed out that under the Geneva Conventions “prisoners of war are entitled to combatant immunity and should not be prosecuted for participation in hostilities”.

Robert Jenrick, Conservative MP for Newark, Mr Aslin’s hometown in central England, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Aslin was not a mercenary, but lived in Ukraine and had served in its armed forces before the Russian invasion. Mr. Aslin is entitled to protection under the Geneva Conventions, Mr. Jenrick said.

“This disgusting Soviet-style show trial is the latest reminder of the depravity of Putin’s regime,” he wrote, adding, “They can’t treat British citizens like this and get away with it. “

Under the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war must be treated humanely and protected from violence, intimidation, insults and public curiosity, as well as sheltered and fed, clothed and cared for.

Denis Krivosheev, an official with Amnesty International, said the sentences were a “flagrant violation of international humanitarian law”.

“All three were members of the Ukrainian regular forces,” he said, “and under the Geneva Conventions, as prisoners of war, they are protected from prosecution for taking part in hostilities.” The only exception, he said, is for war crimes prosecutions.

According to the BBC, Mr Aslin moved to Ukraine in 2018 and joined its army. He is engaged to a Ukrainian woman, the broadcaster said. Mr Pinner is from Bedfordshire, served in the British army and married a Ukrainian, the BBC reported.

Mr Saadoun arrived in Ukraine in 2019, learned Russian and joined the Ukrainian army a year ago, said friend Ilya Zub.

“Brahim is not a mercenary,” Mr Zub said, adding that he had known Mr Saadoun for more than a year. “He came to Ukraine in 2019 and decided he wanted to start a new life.”