Britons released from Russia meet their families after months in captivity

The five Britons released from Russia overnight were back home having been reunited with their families after several months of captivity in which it was feared they would be executed having fought for Ukraine.

Aiden Aslin, 28, returned to his family home near Newark in Nottinghamshire and thanked Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and “everybody else that was involved in our release” as he entered the house.

He said he had had “a traumatic experience” having been under threat of execution since a controversial trial in June, during which he was sentenced to death in breach of international humanitarian law, and that he would speak further about his experience in due course.

“When I’m ready to talk to the media, I’ll talk to the media,” he added.

Shaun Pinner, who was released alongside Aslin, was pictured with his family in a hotel room with his mother, Debbie Price, who thanked “all the amazing people” who had helped.

His family said later that he and his close relatives had endured a harrowing time, which “has now had such a happy resolution”. They said: “Shaun is in good spirits and still has his sense of humour intact. He is looking forward to steak and a glass of red wine tonight.”

A major diplomatic effort was behind the release of the five Britons, who together with two Americans, a Moroccan, a Croat and a Swedish national, were released by Russia to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.

Aiden Aslin, left, Shaun Pinner, right, and Moroccan Brahim Saaudun, centre, behind bars in a courtroom in Donetsk.
Aiden Aslin, left, Shaun Pinner, right, and Moroccan Brahim Saaudun, centre, behind bars in a courtroom in Donetsk. Photograph: AP

Saudi Arabia said its mediation effort had been led by its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who pulled out of attending the Queen’s funeral because of the ongoing controversy over his alleged role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

It is unclear if the activity represented an attempt to boost Bin Salman’s standing in the UK, but Riyadh was keen to show the former captives were safe in a video and pictures released as they got off the plane on Wednesday night.

Zelenskiy spoke to Bin Salman on Thursday and thanked him for facilitating “the release of foreign citizens”. The two men discussed energy supply and post-war recovery in the call, the he said.

Aslin, Pinner and the other three released Britons – John Harding, Andrew Hill and Dylan Healy – had been held by pro-Russia separatists in Donetsk, accused of being mercenaries fighting for Ukraine.

Another passenger on their flight from Riyadh said Hill had told him that the former Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich had helped secure their safety as part of a group involved in negotiating their release. “He didn’t know much more about it but he was very grateful,” the passenger told the Daily Mirror.

Aslin and Pinner, who had joined Ukraine’s army and were captured in Mariupol, were sentenced to death by the court, a ruling that broke the Geneva conventions, which require that prisoners of war not be treated as criminals simply for taking part in fighting.

It had been assumed that Russia or the pro-Russia separatists were trying to use the five men as diplomatic leverage. Their release was something of a surprise and came after internet rumours that Aslin and Pinner had been executed.

It was also part of a wider prisoner swap deal, in which Russia released five commanders from who had been involved in defending the Azov steelworks, in a mediation involving Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for pro-Russia oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk and 200 other prisoners in exchange for 55 Russians.

Russia typically swaps prisoners on a one-to-one basis, and it had been feared the separatists would put the Azov steel plant defenders from Mariupol on trial. That it has backed away from keeping the prisoners suggests a rare concern for global public opinion on the part of Moscow.