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Britons and Moroccan sentenced to death after capture in Ukraine by Russian separatist rebels

“This is a sham judgment with absolutely no legitimacy,” the U.K.'s foreign secretary said.

Two British citizens and a Moroccan are set to face a firing squad after pro-Moscow separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine sentenced them to death, Russian media reported Thursday. 

Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and Saaudun Brahim, who were captured while fighting for Ukraine, were found guilty of working toward a violent overthrow of power by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. They were also convicted of mercenary activities and terrorism. 

NBC News has not been able to independently confirm the reports. 

“The court was guided not only by the prescribed norms and rules, but also by the main, unshakable principle — justice,” Alexander Nikulin, the chairman of the Collegium of the Appeals Chamber of the Supreme Court of the Donetsk People’s Republic, told reporters after the ruling, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.  

“It made it possible to make this difficult decision to apply an exceptional measure of punishment in the form of the death penalty to convicts,” he said.

He said that the defendants “pleaded guilty to all charges” but that the prosecution was not based solely on their guilty pleas.  

The laws of the Donetsk People’s Republic require the death penalty to be carried out by firing squad, according to Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency. The defendants have a month to appeal.

Liz Truss, Britain's foreign secretary, condemned the sentences on Twitter.

“They are prisoners of war. This is a sham judgment with absolutely no legitimacy,” she wrote. “My thoughts are with the families. We continue to do everything we can to support them.”

The three were sentenced as the governor of the neighboring Luhansk region said Ukrainian soldiers might have to retreat from the key eastern city of Sievierodonetsk.

“Fierce battles continue in the city itself, street battles are taking place with varied success in city blocks,” Serhiy Haidai said in a post on his Telegram channel. “The army of Ukraine is fighting for every street and house. Sievierodonetsk is part of the very last pocket of Luhansk that the Russians have yet to seize.”

The street-by-street battle for the city has become the focus of the conflict in recent weeks, with Russia slowly advancing toward its larger goal of taking full control of the industrial Donbas region.

Sievierodonetsk, the last major city still under Ukrainian control in Luhansk province — which together with neighboring Donetsk makes up the Donbas — has been pummeled by artillery in a back-and-forth fight that remains hard to decipher.

Kyiv said a counteroffensive over the weekend had helped its forces regain some ground, but the situation appears to have deteriorated further since then.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Wednesday that the battle for Sievierodonetsk could determine the direction of the broader battle for the Donbas.