One of the British prisoners of war held by Russian separatists said on Friday night that sanctions should be removed from Roman Abramovich for his part in freeing them.
Dylan Healy, 22, said he owed his life to the Russian oligarch who had been involved in negotiating their release. He said none of the five Brtions held in jail thought they would ever be released alive - and had shared their stories in case one of them managed to do so.
Mr Healy spoke of his sadness that Paul Urey, 45, who had been captured with him had died in detention. He said he would tell Mr Urey’s story, once he had permission to do so from the dead man’s family.
Mr Healy was captured with Mr Urey on April 24 as they tried to rescue a Ukrainian family from a contested area in the war zone. Mr Healy, an aid worker, had gone on trial in Donetsk, falsely accused of being a mercenary fighter, and faced the death penalty if convicted.
He had no idea he was being released until boarding a flight from Rostov-on-Don in Russia to Saudi Arabia and discovering Abramovich was on board.
Mr Healy, from Huntingdon, said: “We never thought we would get out. We only knew we were going home when we were on the plane at Rostov. Up to that point we just thought we were going into Russia and that is not good. I am blacklisted in Russia and just thought that’s not the place I want to be.”
Responding to suggestions that Abramovich had intervened as part of a cynical charm offensive to have sanctions lifted, Mr Healy said: “My own personal view is I now have a lifelong debt to Roman Abramovich. He got us out of a situation that the Foreign Office couldn’t. I don’t believe he should have sanctions on him. And I want to point out he never asked us to say that. There was no other reason he was on that plane other than he was a good person.”
Mr Healy, who does not follow football, had no idea about the identity of the former owner of Chelsea FC. He was spotted by Shaun Pinner, another of the captives, who approached Abramovich and said to the stranger on the plane: “You really look like Roman Abramovich”, to which the oligarch responded: “That’s because I am, sir.”
Mr Healy described his trial, which had started in August, as a “circus”. He shared a prison cell with Mr Pinner. Mr Healy said: “I just thought I was going to die there.”
Mr Healy had travelled to Ukraine to help with the humanitarian aid effort after watching the television news and seeing a grandmother clutching a child in one hand and an AK-47 in the other, as she tried to defend Ukraine from attack and protect her grandchild at the same time.
Mr Healy arrived in Ukraine on March 14 and was captured a little over a month later.
Critics of the Putin regime have suggested Abramovich’s involvement in the hostage release was part of a cynical attempt to free up billions of pounds of frozen assets.
Abramovich, 55, remains under economic sanctions in the UK and the European Union, preventing him from accessing assets that include a vast property empire in Britain.
The £2.5 billion proceeds of the sale of Chelsea Football Club are understood to remain frozen although Abramovich has given an undertaking that the money cannot benefit any sanctioned individual, including himself.
But he remains off the sanctions list in the US and is keen to ensure Washington keeps it that way at a time when Vladimir Putin has ratcheted tensions further with a mass mobilisation and the annexation of occupied Ukrainian territories.
The five hostages were at home with their close family on Friday night after months spent in the Russian-occupied Donetsk region of Ukraine. Two of the men - Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslan - had been sentenced to death by firing squad after a sham trial. The other three - Mr Healy, John Harding and Andrew Hill - had been put on trial accused of being mercenaries and had also faced the death penalty if convicted.
Mr Harding, 59, disclosed how Abramovich had handed the men iPhones on the jet so they could call loved ones. Abramovich had previously attempted to broker a peace deal in the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But the oligarch’s motives have been questioned, given his close links to Putin. Bill Browder, the Anglo-American businessman and arch-critic of Putin, who has successfully lobbied governments around the world to sanction Russians close to the president, said: “It seems like a very cynical way of unfreezing his assets. He [Abramovich] is one of Putin’s top people. It seems a very cynical attempt to get off the sanctions list.”
A British security source said: “Roman Abramovich is still trying to carry favour with all sides, stay unsanctioned in the US and protect his back in Russia. That’s not an enviable task.”
An EU official believed Abramovich was working behind the scenes to lift sanctions by approaching individual member states. “War and deprivation of income can change attitudes,” the official said, reflecting on Abramovich's newfound image as a peace broker.
A second official said he believed Abramovich was positioning himself in an attempt to ease sanctions. “I’ve seen his mansion in Kensington Gardens [in London]. You better believe so.”
Abramovich has tried to sue the EU, through the European Court of Justice, in June, in the hope of having his assets unblocked and visa unfrozen - but the attempt is expected to fail.
How involvement in hostage release came about is unclear
It is unclear how Abramovich became involved in the hostage release which was brokered by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, whose own reputation was severaly tarnished over his alleged ordering of the murder of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
It is possible that Putin ordered Abramovich’s involvement in a determined effort to have released from Ukraine custody Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch turned pro-Kremlin politician that Putin wanted to install as the Ukraine president. Medvedchuk was one of 56 prisoners sent to Russia while 215 PoWs, including the five Britons and five other foreigners, went in the other direction.
In an interview with the Sun newspaper, Mr Harding, a father-of-two, also praised Abramovich for helping to get the hostages released. Mr Harding said: “He was a really sound bloke, a really lovely guy. He’s a legend - we absolutely love him and I’m so grateful for his efforts.”
Mr Harding, who had been serving as a medic with the Azov regiment, was taken prisoner in May after the fall of Mariupol. He told how he was regularly beaten in a jail in Donetsk and how on one occasion a plastic bag was placed over his head and his hands tied behind his back while he was kicked and punched, breaking his ribs.
He said that his Russian captors had tormented the hostages when news came through that Queen Elizabeth had died. “They took great pleasure in letting us know,” said Mr Harding.
In a statement released by the Foreign Office, Mr Pinner’s family said: “It’s a very emotional time as you can expect and we are unable to currently discuss so early in his release any details fully. It’s been a harrowing time for Shaun and our family which has now had such a happy resolution. Shaun is in good spirits and still has his sense of humour intact. He is looking forward to steak and a glass of red wine tonight.”
Ms Wood, Mr Aslin's mother, described being sent video clips that showed her son with his hands bound being yelled at by his captors in a jail in Russian-held Donetsk, Ukraine.
Similar images were sent to the family of Mr Pinner, who was captured by the Russians during the siege of Mariupol in April.
The 51-year-old mother of three told The Sun: "They knew how vulnerable the families were, how anxious we felt, and they tried to turn the screw in a bid to take us to breaking point.
"It was extremely hard to deal with -but we refused to play their games. As a mum, you'll do everything to stop your children being harmed."