Roman Abramovich played an unlikely part in negotiating the British prisoners release in Ukraine

Mick the Ram

Sep 26, 2022

It has emerged that an unlikely ally played a major part in the release of five British prisoners from Russian captivity last week, and is now considered a real hero in the eyes of the men he helped. John Harding, Shaun Pinner, Aiden Aslin, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill were surprisingly set free after months of tortuous treatment and potential death sentences; but seemingly right in the middle of the delicate negotiations was the former Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich.

Surreal conversation with Russian oligarch

On the plane back to the UK from Saudi Arabia, the men had gone from filthy, disgusting cramped cells, regular beatings, and stale bread, to being treated like royalty on a leather-seated jet, and being served with top notch meals. Mr Harding from Sunderland, explained how Mr Pinner, who is a big football fan and a supporter of West Ham United, had recognised Mr Abramovich and approached him to confirm it was indeed him.

In a comical moment, after the controversial Russian initially said he was from London, it was put to the famous oligarch that he looked a lot like Roman Abramovich, and his reply was “That is because I am him, sir.” They they proceeded to chat about football at length in a totally surreal situation. Mr Harding went on to say how much respect they have for the man and for what he has done for them, adding: “He was a sound bloke, a really lovely guy. He is legend and we absolutely love him and I personally am so grateful for his efforts.”

Sanctioned by UK government

The 55-year-old Abramovich announced he would sell Chelsea FC on March 2, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He was then sanctioned by the UK Government the following week after it was claimed that Downing Street had proven his links to Vladimir Putin. He is however, understood to have played a key role, along with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in negotiating the prisoner exchange that saw the four fighters and one aid worker released.

Last month jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny called for more systematic punitive measures against all of the Russian oligarchs supporting Putin and the war in Ukraine. He said Abramovich had so far escaped United States sanctions, despite his companies supplying metal to the Russian Defence Ministry.

Three of the men served in a volunteer unit

Mr Harding, Mr Pinner and Mr Aslin are believed to have served in the Georgian Legion, a pro-Ukrainian volunteer unit. A court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic had sentenced Mr Pinner and Mr Aslin to death back in July. They had both lived in Ukraine for a number of years and were serving with its regular forces when the full-scale war broke out.

Taken prisoner defending Mariupol

Mr Harding was still awaiting trial; he had been fighting in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region ever since 2018, after making Ukraine his home. He was serving as a medic with the 2nd Battalion of the Azov Regiment. He surrendered and was taken prisoner in May after his unit ran out of ammunition trying to defend the besieged port of Mariupol, in the east of the country.

He was regularly moved from different jails, but at one, in Russian-held Donetsk, he received such a brutal beating lasting over 30 minutes, that he was left with more or less every rib broken, and was passing blood when urinating for days after. He also told how the Russians laughed and celebrated in front of them when telling the men that Queen Elizabeth II had died. He admitted he had reached a point where he was ready to die.

Shocking brutality by guards

Now reunited with their families, small details of one of the other men’s ordeal have come out. Mr Aslin said he was “treated worse than a dog” and kept in solitary confinement for five months. He told of how the prisoners had to sing the Russian national anthem every morning and if they refused they would be severely beaten.

The soldier from Newark in the East Midlands, recalled how one time he was stabbed in the back with a knife and was asked by a guard whether he wanted a quick death, or a beautiful death?  He was also beaten for having a tattoo of a Ukrainian trident and for another one showing his time in Syria. He painted the grim picture of his imprisonment explaining he shared a two-man cell with four people and had to sleep on a mat infested with lice. He said: “We couldn’t go to the toilet properly because we didn’t have a toilet, so we had to use empty bottles.”

Mother’s anguish

His mother, Angela Wood, admitted she was in shock when the Foreign Office told her and that she never thought the day would come when her son would be released, and certainly not when and how it did. After hearing some of the details of her son’s time in captivity, she was horrified at the treatment dealt out by his “cowardly, inhumane guards.” Ms Wood also divulged that she was contacted by the Russian separatists who were holding Aiden and was asked for money. “They put me and my family through nearly six months of pure hell, of blackmail and propaganda,” she said.

Harrowing ordeal and hope of reunion

Mr Pinner’s family said he was “in good spirits and looking forward to steak and a glass of red wine” whilst asking people to understand how harrowing it had been for him, indicating that he had given them a pretty gruesome detailed account of his time locked up.

They thanked the efforts of everyone at the Foreign Office, Liz Truss and her team, Boris Johnson and President Zelensky and any influence Mr Abramovich may have had. There was also acknowledgement on behalf of Shaun, directed towards the hospitality of the Saudi Government and Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s part in the negotiations.

They said he was naturally pleased to be home and hoped to get his Ukrainian wife, Larysa, over to the UK soon.

Definitely not regarded as a rival any more

Traditionally West Ham and Chelsea are fierce rivals with supporters of both teams having little or no time for the other club and its fans. It is likely that if in attendance at a previous fixture between the two, Mr Pinner may well have joined in with some uncomplimentary chants aimed at Roman Abramovich; but mention that name in a disparaging way in his company any time in the future and he undoubtedly will leap straight to the billionaire’s defence.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.