Briton who joined pro-Russian forces in Ukraine jailed for terror offence
An unemployed Briton who joined pro-Russian militia fighting against Ukrainian government forces has been jailed for five years and four months for a terrorism offence.
Benjamin Stimson, 41, who went to the conflict zone in the Donbass region, is the only UK citizen to have been prosecuted for assisting the anti-Government militia in Ukraine.
While in the country, he gave a BBC interview in which he claimed he was "a working class man with no work" whose last job was on a zero hours contract.
He said he could not live in Britain any more and was prepared to kill someone if his life was threatened on the front line in what he said he would class as "an act of war".
Stimson also posted on Facebook a photograph of himself holding an AK-47, said it was "simple n' easy" and summed up Donbass as "vodka, women and guns".
But Manchester Crown Court heard that Stimson, formerly of Oldham, Greater Manchester, did not actually engage in any fighting during his four months in eastern Ukraine in 2015 and had intended to perform humanitarian work by driving ambulances.
Sentencing him, the Honorary Recorder of Manchester David Stockdale QC said: "You ultimately did no physical harm to anyone but you assisted the militia by your presence and your involvement, and you will have given a lead to others.
"I accept you do not hold extremist views and you have expressed your regret for your actions.
"It is clear to me that your intention of going there was not to fight but to escape your life in the United Kingdom, perhaps to find adventure and to possibly carry out humanitarian work.
"There is no evidence at all that you at any stage used any violence upon anyone. There is no evidence that you actually engaged in combat.
"On the contrary there is evidence that your presentation as a fighting man was in large part an exaggeration on your own part or even the product of fantasy."
Stimson pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to a single charge of assisting others in committing terrorism acts.
The Crown did not proceed with an additional count of engaging in conduct in preparation for terrorism.
Stimson will be considered for parole at the halfway point of his sentence and on his eventual release will have to serve an extra 12 months on licence.
Barnaby Jamieson, prosecuting, said Russia had taken steps to annex the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014 and Donbass became a focal point of the resulting conflict and endured major unrest at the hands of Russian separatists.
He said: "From the perspective of the Putin government, the conflict was about creating 'Novorussia', or New Russia - and expanding Russian territory to include the entire Ukraine."
Stimson carried out "extensive" research on the conflict in the summer of 2015 and among internet search entries later found on his computer were: "Volunteer to fight in Donbass," "Britons fighting in Donbass," and "UK law on fighting overseas".
The defendant showed a particular interest in "the Army of Novorussia" and later successfully applied for a Russian visa, said Mr Jamieson.
Stimson flew from Manchester via Brussels to Moscow on August 8, 2015 and was transported to Donbass on his arrival after he established a contact prior to his journey.
Less than a week later the defendant was complaining of stomach pains and had to spend a week in a military hospital, the court was told.
In mid-October 2015, he gave an interview to BBC correspondent Tom Burridge in which his face was shielded from the camera.
Mr Jamieson said: "The defendant suggested that after watching reports in the media about far-right groups in Ukraine, he was inspired to join the rebels. He also complained of his lack of employment prospects back home.
"He went on to say 'well I just see this as a more Western imperialist aggression towards Russia, to people who are not necessarily playing the Western game. I have come here as a working class man with no work. Last job I had was in December last year, zero hour contracts. You can't live in Britain anymore now. No housing, so I voted with me feet'."
Stimson denied he was "meddling" in the conflict and said he was not a terrorist - "not like these jihadists that go out to Syria".
The defendant returned to the UK on November 23, 2015 and was arrested at Manchester Airport on suspicion of terrorism offences.
In his luggage was found various items of military clothing including some which bore the would-be flag of Novorussia, the court was told.
Mr Jamieson said: "The defendant accepts by his plea that by serving as an armed militiaman in an irregular force opposing the Ukrainian army he was assisting others with the intention of committing acts of terrorism.
"Taking up arms for a cause that was either political or ideological brings the defendant within the broadly drawn terrorism legislation. The law does not distinguish between one political/religious/ideological cause or another."