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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Andrew Roth

‘He’s been betrayed’: sister of Moroccan man captured in Ukraine pleads for help

Brahim and Iman Saadoun
‘If it wasn’t for his friends, most people wouldn’t know about him’: a photograph taken in 2017 of Brahim and Iman Saadoun. Photograph: c/o Iman Saadoun

The sister of Brahim Saadoun, the Moroccan man who was captured while serving in the Ukrainian military, has said she feared he has been abandoned by his own government and has called on the international community to “claim my brother”.

“I just want any authority, anybody who is willing to help, to come and help,” Iman Saadoun said in an interview with the Guardian, describing being left in limbo while seeking government support for him.

Saadoun was one of three men sentenced to death by Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine in a show trial designed to mimic the convictions of Russian soldiers for war crimes. The other two were the Britons Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner. The foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has said she will do “whatever is necessary” to secure their release.

Morocco has sought not to criticise Russia, a member of the UN security council, over its invasion of Ukraine. While European countries have largely condemned the war, pro-Russian views are more mainstream in the Middle East and Africa.

Iman said the local press and many people on social media had celebrated her brother’s sentence.

Brahim Saadoun in courtroom cage
Brahim Saadoun in a courtroom cage in Russian-occupied Donetsk. Photograph: Supreme court of Donetsk People’s Republic/Reuters

“He is really being betrayed,” she said. “When he got the verdict of the death penalty … almost everybody, maybe 10 per cent are helping him, but the majority are celebrating that he is going to die. They are celebrating the fact that he will be shot. And this hurt my heart because I couldn’t find support from my own community.

“Now I’m pleading for someone to come and claim my brother because he wasn’t claimed in his own country,” she said.

The Moroccan government remained silent on his case until last week, when its embassy in Ukraine delivered a terse statement that Saadoun “was captured while wearing the uniform of the army of the state of Ukraine, as a member of the Ukrainian marine unit”. The statement said that he was “currently imprisoned by an entity that is recognised by neither the United Nations nor Morocco”.

Iman shared hateful social media posts she had seen online about her brother from accounts in Morocco.

“Honestly, he needs to be killed, this kind isn’t Moroccan,” wrote one user in a series of posts. Another user used the hashtag “kill Brahim Saadoun”.

He has received greater support in Ukraine, where fellow students described Saadoun as kind and curious, and a popular member of the local techno community. A number of friends had raised awareness under the hashtag #SaveBrahim, while saying they were concerned that media attention had focused only on the two Britons in the dock.

“I want people to write about this #SaveBrahim campaign for him,” she said. “Just save Brahim because he shouldn’t be forgotten … If it wasn’t for his friends, most people wouldn’t know about him.”

Brahim and Iman Saadoun as children
A childhood photograph of Iman and Brahim Saadoun. Photograph: c/o Iman Saadoun

Iman said she stayed in touch with Brahim online but had not seen him in person since 2017, before he moved to Ukraine to become a student at a polytechnic university. His childhood dream was to become an aerospace engineer. “He loved everything to do with aeroplanes,” she said. “He wanted to build them.”

His father has said that Saadoun received Ukrainian citizenship in 2020 after completing military training through his university. His friends shared videos of him heading to his deployment with a stuffed animal dog and a tie-dye garland strapped to his military-issue backpack.

Russia has called Saadoun a mercenary, but has provided no evidence. He deployed to Mariupol in November 2021 as a member of a Ukrainian marine unit, according to friends and government officials, and was captured in April.

Iman said she immediately recognised her younger brother when she saw videos of him being interviewed by a Russian journalist in prison, and that the images of him behind bars had haunted her and her family.

She said that she had called a local Moroccan embassy for help, where she’d been told: “What do you want me to do about it?” Other officials had given a similar response. “They are literally trying to put you in limbo,” she said, describing a series of requests to the foreign ministry and other government agencies.

British officials have said they are working for Aslin and Pinner’s release, but are not holding direct negotiations and are working through the Ukrainian government.

Denis Pushilin, the leader of the Russian-controlled territory in Donetsk, said he saw “no grounds” for a pardon of the prisoners and that a swap “is not even being discussed”.

“Neither Britain, nor Morocco” had made direct contact to discuss the prisoners’ fate, he said. The Donetsk People’s Republic is recognised by only a handful of international governments and is widely seen as a puppet of Moscow.

Iman said that if it would save her brother’s life, she would be willing to take his place.

“I want to give myself instead of him,” she said. “I’m willing to do it. They just can take me. I don’t care what they do to me. Just take me and leave my little brother.”

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