“We still are trying to learn more about these two individuals,” said John Kirby, the coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council.
“It’s appalling that a public official in Russia would even suggest the death penalty for two American citizens that were in Ukraine. And we’re going to continue to try and learn what we can about this,” he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday the Geneva Convention – the charter that sets out how soldiers and civilians are treated in wartime, including banning execution of prisoners of war – does not apply to the two detained US citizens.
Peskov said the death penalty could not be ruled out, but that it was a decision for a court and not the Kremlin.
Kirby said he wouldn’t try and get into Peskov’s or Vladimir Putin’s heads, but he added whether the prospect of the death penalty was real or hypothetical, it was troubling no matter what.
“Either way, it’s equally alarming, whether they actually mean what they’re saying here and this could be an outcome, that they could levy a death penalty against two Americans in Ukraine,” he said. “Or that they just feel it’s a responsible thing for a major power to do, to talk about doing this as a way of signaling to the President of the United States and the American people. Either one of them is equally alarming.”
Two American volunteers fighting for Ukraine were taken into detention by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk after being captured last week, according to Russian state media.
US citizens Alexander John-Robert Drueke, 39, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, from Hartselle, Alabama, were interviewed by Russia’s RT channel at a detention center in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) on Friday, according to a report published on RT.
The two Americans went missing on June 9 during a battle north of Kharkiv and it was feared that they may have been captured by Russian forces, according to their families and a fellow fighter.
On Friday, short video clips surfaced on pro-Russian channels and social media appearing to show the men detained at an unknown location. At the time it was not clear who was holding them.
A State Department spokesperson told CNN on Friday they “have seen the photos and videos of these two US citizens reportedly captured by Russia’s military forces in Ukraine” and were “closely monitoring the situation.”
“We are in contact with Ukrainian authorities, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and with the families themselves,” they continued. “Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment on these cases.”
Separately, a more than 50-minute edited video was published on Saturday of Drueke and Huynh being interviewed by HelmCast, a pro-Russian Serbian nationalist YouTube channel.
In the interview, a man can be heard behind the camera revealing the location of their interview when he says, “here in Donetsk” during a question to Drueke.
Drueke is also asked in the interview if he has any objections to how he has been treated since his capture and he reveals he has been beaten.
CNN is choosing not to broadcast the videos of US detainees because they show the men speaking under duress.
The location of Drueke and Huynh’s detention is a potentially concerning development. Russia has a moratorium on the death penalty, whereas Donetsk uses firing squads to execute condemned prisoners, according to Russian state media RIA Novosti.
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