Boris Johnson has ordered ministers to do “everything in their power” to secure the release of two Britons condemned to death for fighting Russian forces in a “sham” sentencing.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss discussed efforts to secure the release of Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner with her Ukrainian counterpart on Friday after the judgment by a Russian proxy court.
A relative of Mr Aslin urged Britain and Ukraine to “do everything in their power to have them returned to us safely, and soon”.
They said Mr Aslin, 28, and Mr Pinner, 48, “are not, and never were, mercenaries” and should be treated as prisoners of war as they were fighting as part of the Ukrainian army.
The pair were convicted of taking action towards violent seizure of power at a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
A No 10 spokesman said: “The Prime Minister was appalled at the sentencing of these men.
“He has been following the case closely and has asked ministers to do everything in their power to try and reunite them with their families as soon as we can.
“We completely condemn the sham sentencing of these men to death. There’s no justification at all for this breach of the protection they’re entitled to.”
Ms Truss said she discussed “efforts to secure the release of prisoners of war held by Russian proxies” during her call with Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
“The judgment against them is an egregious breach of the Geneva Convention,” she added.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov defended the convictions as being “guided by the laws of the Donetsk People’s Republic”, the breakaway state controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.
“Because these crimes were committed on the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic, all the rest is speculation,” he told a press conference.
The Government was resisting calling in Russia’s ambassador to the UK to discuss the case as officials tread a diplomatic tightrope.
There were concerns that making their case an issue between the UK and Russia would assist Moscow in its narrative that the men are “mercenaries” and therefore not entitled to protection under international law.
Britain argues that Mr Aslin, from Newark in Nottinghamshire, and Mr Pinner, from Bedfordshire, are legitimate members of the Ukrainian army and should therefore be treated as prisoners of war.
In a statement to the Newark Advertiser, one of Mr Aslin’s family said: “We love Aiden with all our hearts. He and Shaun, as members of Ukrainian armed forces, should be treated with respect, just like any other prisoners of war.
“They are not, and never were, mercenaries.
“We hope that this sentence will be overturned and beseech the governments of the UK and Ukraine to do everything in their power to have them returned to us safely, and soon.
“We can only imagine what they are going through right now.
“This is a very upsetting development and we ask that our privacy is respected at this time.”
A third man, Moroccan national Saaudun Brahim, was convicted alongside Mr Aslin and Mr Pinner.
The men were accused of being “mercenaries” after fighting with Ukrainian troops.
Interfax, a Russian news agency, claimed the men would be able to appeal against their convictions.
Mr Aslin and Mr Pinner were both members of regular Ukrainian military units fighting in Mariupol, the southern port city which was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Tory former minister Robert Jenrick, who represents the constituency where Mr Aslin lived, called for the Russian ambassador to the UK to be summoned to the Foreign Office.
It comes after a friend of Mr Aslin said the death sentences will “invigorate” those still resisting Russia’s advances.