A Briton who was threatened with execution after being captured by Russian forces during the siege of Mariupol has been released alongside four other Britons and five international prisoners after the intervention of Saudi Arabia.
Aiden Aslin and “the other British prisoners of war held captive by the Russian authorities” were already on their way back to the UK, said Aslin’s MP, Robert Jenrick, after being flown from Russia to Saudi Arabia.
Aslin was released alongside the two fighters he was sentenced to death with at a controversial trial in Russian-held eastern Ukraine in June – Shaun Pinner, and a Moroccan named Brahim Saadoun.
“We just want to let everybody know we are out of the danger zone,” Aslin said in a video filmed on a plane with Pinner beside him. “By the skin of our teeth,” Pinner added, and both men thanked those who had supported them during their detention.
The other Britons released are John Harding, Andrew Hill and Dylan Healy, plus Vjekoslav Prebeg, who is Croatian, and Mathias Gustafsson, a Swede, who were jointly put on trial by pro-Russian separatists in August for being mercenaries. All were named on a list of all prisoners released issued by the Ukraine government.
Aslin, Pinner and Saadoubnwere put on trial despite being active soldiers, and pictured behind bars during the proceedings, much of which were held in private – and found guilty of “terrorism” in a ruling condemned by the then foreign secretary Liz Truss as “a sham judgment”.
The Geneva conventions state that prisoners of war on all sides must not be prosecuted for their direct part in hostilities. A friend of Aslin’s said, in an Instagram posting, that he had spoken to Aslin who had been “stabbed and beaten in detention” but was now “doing pretty good”.
Aslin had been forced to surrender with his comrades in April after they ran out of food and ammunition as the Russians closed in on Mariupol. He had moved to Ukraine in 2018 and had joined its army some time before the war.
Truss, now the prime minister, said that five Britons held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine had been released. She expressed relief they were “being safely returned, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families”.
Two Americans were also among the released: Alexander Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh, both US military veterans from Alabama who had volunteered to fight. Drueke’s mother spoke to him for about 10 minutes, and said he appeared to be in good condition, the Washington Post reported.
Drueke’s aunt, Dianna Shaw, said the two men were “safely in the custody of the US embassy in Saudi Arabia and after medical checks and debriefing they will return to the states”. Both men have spoken with relatives and are in “pretty good shape”, according to an official with the US embassy.
The names of the others were not initially confirmed, but the total number of Britons released was five, the Foreign Office said. Film released by the Saudi foreign ministry shows them landing and being greeted in the country, with Aslin first off the plane and Saadoun also visible.
The Saudi foreign ministry said the others were nationals from Croatia and Sweden as well as Britain, Morocco and the US, who had been released after the intervention of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Jenrick said the release of Aslin would bring relief to his family. “Aiden’s return brings to an end to months of agonising uncertainty for Aiden’s loving family in Newark who suffered every day of Aiden’s sham trial but never lost hope,” Jenrick added.
In a video filmed in February just before the war started, Aslin said he had “originally wanted to be a cop” but he went abroad to fight. The Briton fought for the Syrian Kurdish YPG against Islamic State between 2015 and 2017 before moving to Ukraine a year later.
The release appeared to be part of a wider prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia, in which Ukraine released pro-Russia oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk and 55 Russian prisoners in return for Russia releasing 215 Ukrainian prisoners, many survivors of the siege of Mariupol.
A statement from the Saudi foreign ministry said: “The relevant Saudi authorities received and transferred them from Russia to the kingdom and are facilitating procedures for their respective countries.”