Three foreign men were last week sentenced to death by firing squad by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine. The court accused them of being mercenaries and terrorists seeking to violently overthrow the government.
Prosecutors claimed that the men were guilty of “training for the purpose of carrying out terrorist activities” and undertook their activities “for a fee.” Meanwhile, their defense stressed that the two Britons and one Moroccan citizen had emigrated to Ukraine and were defending their adopted country by fighting in its armed forces.
The court’s harsh verdict provoked outrage from the British government and the international community. “Prisoners of war shouldn’t be exploited for political purposes,” said a spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss posted on Twitter that the court verdict was a “sham judgment with absolutely no legitimacy.”
The UN Human Rights Office condemned the death sentences, with spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani pointing out that “such trials against prisoners of war amount to a war crime.” She added: “According to the chief command of Ukraine, all the men were part of the Ukrainian armed forces and, if that is the case, they should not be considered as mercenaries.”
Following the launch of Russia’s invasion in February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for foreign volunteers to join his country’s armed forces, inspiring thousands of international veterans to join the fight to free Ukraine.
This brought the debate of mercenaries versus legitimate foreign fighters back to the fore. A mercenary — also known as a soldier of fortune or hired gun — is a private civilian paid to carry out military operations for personal profit. They are not members of any official military.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a new justification for the use of mercenaries emerged, as governments sought to conceal their interference, hide their ambitions and avoid embarrassment or having to bear responsibility for any human rights violations on the international level. Back then, mercenaries were limited to states and governments, but they are now available to everyone, including militias, political groups and terrorist organizations.
Mercenaries and their inhumane acts, which are challenging to prosecute legally, are not unusual in the Middle East. Several regional governments and terrorist groups have used mercenaries on their own troubled soil or in other conflict zones in order to support one party over another for political or ideological reasons.
Even worse, some do not fight for a specific wage but, in return for their services, they are allowed to loot, destroy and rape as they please. The attacks on Iraqi Christians in the city of Mosul and Yazidis in the Sinjar district are among the most horrific examples. In Mosul, Daesh deployed its mercenaries from the Syrian regime, including trained and experienced soldiers and militias. The group also succeeded in luring the countryside’s poor and simple-minded men and women, in addition to the city’s unemployed residents, recruiting them to locate, kidnap or assassinate those who refused the terrorists’ guardianship.
As for the bloody Iranian regime, it is still recruiting, arming and financing multinational organizations and militias as mercenaries to fight on its behalf so that it can avoid Arab and international accusations that it is directly involved in shaking the stability and security of the region. Looking at the map, the Iranian hand starts in Iraq and passes through Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, ending in Yemen.
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