Briton jailed on terrorism charges for fighting with Russia-backed militants in Ukraine
41-year-old Benjamin Stimson has been jailed for five years and four months under the UK Terrorism Act for taking part in the fighting in Donbas on the side of the Russian and Russian-backed militants. This is the first terrorism conviction of a UK national for his part in the Donbas fighting, however Britain has previously brought charges under the same law against people for fighting on the side of the so-called ‘Islamic State’.
Stimson, who is from Oldham in Greater Manchester, pleaded guilty on July 14 to assisting others to commit acts of terrorism under Section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006 (Preparation of terrorist acts). Stimson had originally claimed that he had not been a militant and only drove ambulances in Donbas. It was reported earlier in July, however, that he had admitted to the lesser of the two terrorism charges, of assisting others in committing acts of terrorism. The charge stated that he had had “the intention of committing acts of terrorism assisted by others by becoming a member of the militia opposing the Ukrainian government and serving as a soldier within the militia.” The second charge – of planning to commit acts of terrorism – was dropped.
The BBC quotes Chief Superintendent Russ Jackson, who heads the regional counter-terrorism unit, as calling the images of Stimson holding a rifle and in military gear as “deeply concerning”.
"He has been jailed for the role he played in a violent conflict and I hope his conviction will send a message to all those who are even considering joining conflicts."
The Chief Superintendent’s hopes are shared.
Stimson’s motives are in dispute, with the left-wing activists supporting him on Facebook having swallowed all the Russian narrative about a ‘fascist coup’ in Ukraine and treating Stimson as a martyr. In fact, his own words in the BBC interview which probably led to his arrest, suggest that ideological considerations were not the only motivating factor.
Stimson left the UK in August 2015 and travelled to Moscow, before being illegally taken from there into Eastern Ukraine where he joined a front-line militant unit.
He chose to give an interview to the BBC in October that year and was seen and heard in the resulting BBC article ‘Ukraine conflict: The Brits fighting with pro-Russian rebels’. This reported that “Eastern Ukraine is not his first conflict. He claimed he was involved in Bosnia, and says he thought about joining the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq.”
The report says that lack of work at home, and ideology prompted him live “with a group of rebel soldiers, just north of the city of Debaltseve in rebel-held territory”.
"I see this as more western imperial aggression towards Russia, to people who aren’t playing the western game", he said.
He did not want the BBC to show his face, or use his name, but denied that he was “meddling” in the conflict and said that he was no terrorist.
The BBC points out that the UK government has warned that "people who travel abroad to participate in conflicts may be committing criminal or terrorism offences and could face prosecution when they return to the UK".
“Wearing a balaclava over his face during our interview, the British man said he would be prepared to kill someone if his life was threatened. And he said that if he died in eastern Ukraine, it would have been worth it because he is "doing something he is proud of".
Stimson was arrested when he returned to the UK. He later claimed in a long interview to the notorious British propagandist for Russia, Graham Phillips, that the BBC had manipulated him, and deceived him by getting him to pick up a rifle.
He was silent about the fact that there are similar images of him in camouflage gear and holding weapons on his social network page. He claimed also in that interview to Phillips that he had been ‘helping’ people in Kurdistan and “doing humanitarian work” in Bosnia.
He denied both to the BBC and to Phillips that there were any Russians in Donbas, or that Russia was organizing things, while parroting Russian propaganda about ‘Ukrainian fascists’. It was evident in the Phillips interview that he only dimly understands what is Ukraine, what Russia. He says, for example, that he’d wanted to live there, then that he came back to get money “to live in Russia”.
Igor Sutyagin, writing for the Royal United Services Institute [RUSI] back in March 2015, estimated that there were around 10 thousand Russian military engaged in eastern Ukraine, as well as considerable military technology. The technology included the Buk missile used to down the Malaysian airliner MH17 over militant-controlled Donbas on July 17, 2014, killing 298 people.
The BBC reports that under British law, an act of terrorism “means resorting to violence, or its threat, to influence a government or people for an ideological cause. Stimson’s decision to support a militia attacking a legitimate government therefore fell foul of the law”.
Nor is it only the UK who are bringing prosecutions.
In June this year, the Czech authorities reported that a Czech citizen was on trial, also on terrorism charges, over involvement in Donbas. A Latvian citizen, Artem Skripnik is also on trial, though on war crimes, rather than terrorism. He also claims to have been on a humanitarian mission in Donbas.
Russia, whose leaders claim it is not involved in the conflict in Donbas, and that the vast numbers of Russians fighting are all ‘volunteers’, has only convicted one Russian (in absentia) for fighting against the militants. Others are treated as heroes, like the Russian mercenary Arseny Pavlov, whose death in a militant-guarded apartment block removed somebody Ukraine would have wanted on trial at the Hague for war crimes.