An ex-Whitehall official who was banned from Ukraine on suspicion of being a Russian spy has published the first interview with captured British fighter Aiden Aslin.
Graham Phillips “started his professional life as a faceless bureaucrat for the now-defunct Central Office of Information”, the UK government’s marketing and communications agency, said The Telegraph. But he is now infamous for his role “spreading Russian lies and propaganda” through his video blogs from Ukraine.
In an interview uploaded to YouTube, the self-described “independent journalist” is seen to “verbally probe and prod” a “visibly handcuffed” Aslin, who was captured by Russian troops last week while fighting alongside Ukrainian forces in Mariupol. The PoW is urged to “denounce Ukraine, recognise the breakaway Russian puppet states in the Donbas and ask for a prisoner exchange to save himself from execution”, the newspaper reported.
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Mandarin to Moscow
Nottingham-born Phillips left the civil service in 2010 before going to live in Ukrainian capital Kyiv and then the port city of Odesa, “where he wrote a blog reviewing nightclubs and brothels”, The Times reported.
Now-deleted posts also documented him “sleeping with a Russian prostitute whilst high on drugs in Amsterdam”, as well as “recounting the history of a notorious Odesa brothel”, said The Telegraph.
In 2013, he was hired as a freelance correspondent by state-owned broadcaster Russia Today (RT), reporting from Ukraine’s occupied Crimea region and later Donbas.
Phillips “attracted derision for his reporting on the front line, in which he often blurred the boundaries between reportage and activism”, said The Times. “While reporting from a prisoner of war camp, he filmed himself berating wounded Ukrainian detainees, calling one soldier who had lost both hands, a ‘brainwashed zombie’.”
In 2014, he was expelled from Ukraine on suspicion of being a Russian agent, although he has since returned multiple times. Phillips denied being linked to the Russian state, claiming that his work was “supported by crowdfunding from individuals across the world who want to see the truth”.
The British blogger left RT that same year. But months later, he was “awarded a medal by the Border Service, a branch of the FSB, Russia’s security agency”, the paper continued.
According to The Telegraph, since 2016, his YouTube videos have been “a mixture of ‘reportage’ from Crimea – involving interviews with bystanders and lingering shots of women in bikinis apparently unaware of his presence – attempts to ‘debunk’ Western reporting on Russia and eastern Europe, and videos focusing on Black Lives Matter, migrant camps and other divisive issues in the West”.
Phillips had previously told BuzzFeed News that his YouTube videos were his main source of income, with each generating thousands of dollars through distributors such as Storyful.
“The way that Ukraine is perceived and portrayed in the media isn’t a representation of what I’ve seen and what I’ve felt and what I’ve experienced,” he said during the 2014 interview with the site. “They’re portrayed as the nice cuddly country that’s been attacked by the big bear of Russia. But what I see is a country that has a lot more problems.”
In 2018, Phillips was banned from Twitter for reasons not disclosed by the social media giant.
Following the Russian invasion in February, he went back to Ukraine, from where he has uploaded a string of videos on his YouTube channel, which has 264,000 subscribers.
In his recent blogs from Ukraine, Phillips has attempted to “to deny Russia’s alleged war crimes in Bucha whilst pushing Kremlin propaganda showing Russian troops delivering humanitarian aid in occupied areas”, according to The Telegraph.
But his interview with Aslin could land him legal trouble.
In the video, “Aslin answers no when asked several times if he is speaking under duress”, reported The Guardian. At “his interviewer’s prompting”, the PoW “repeats several of Moscow’s propaganda lines, including that he is a mercenary and not, therefore, a legitimate combatant”.
In a statement, Aslin’s family said: “The video of Aiden speaking under duress and having clearly suffered physical injuries is deeply distressing. Using images and videos of prisoners of war is in contravention of the Geneva Convention and must stop.”
The family were “in contact with the Foreign Office to ensure the Russian authorities meet their obligations to prisoners of war under international law”, the statement added.
Aslin’s local MP in his hometown of Newark, former housing secretary Robert Jenrick, said the “misuse” of the British fighter “for propaganda purposes” was a “disgraceful and flagrant breach of the Geneva Convention”.
“Russia must desist from this illegal behaviour immediately and treat Aiden appropriately,” Jenrick insisted.
Legal experts told The Telegraph that the interview, which is under review by YouTube, breached the Geneva Conventions protections for PoWs and that Phillips “could be exposing himself to a war crimes prosecution and having his citizenship removed”.
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