By Halya Coynash, for Human Rights in Ukraine
See the link below the text for a letter and other ways of joining in the campaign to #FreeSentsov
It is exactly three years since Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian filmmaker and single father, was arrested in Simferopol, shortly after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. His trial and 20-year-sentence have been condemned by the entire international community, yet Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps repeating the same narrative, that Sentsov was tried and convicted of ‘terrorism’. It is the magic word that Moscow has used to impose a sentence far longer than those in Soviet times passed against dissidents. Terrorism, however, has a clear meaning, and Putin should be challenged to justify the claim or #FreeSentsov.
Where is the terrorism?
Four opponents of Russian annexation were arrested in May 2014: Oleg Sentsov, civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko; Gennady Afanasyev and Oleksiy Chirniy.
The other men had all taken part in one or two Molotov cocktail attacks during the night on the empty offices of two pro-Russian political organizations which had played a major role in Russia’s invasion. Chirniy also had plans to blow up a statue of Vladimir Lenin.
These are certainly treated as offences in Russia, but are punished as vandalism or hooliganism, with the person getting a suspended sentence.
Here they were called ‘terrorism’, which carries a minimum 7-year sentence.
There was quite literally nothing against Sentsov at all, yet he was tried as the ‘mastermind of a terrorist plot’.
In just over three years under Russian occupation, there has not been a single terrorist attack in Crimea, yet Russia has either convicted or is holding 23 men in indefinite detention on ‘terrorism’ charges. Fictitious ‘terrorist plots’ and supposed enemies are used to try to justify the armed invasion of Ukrainian Crimea. Moscow had, after all, claimed that its intervention was needed to ‘protect’ Russians and Russian-speakers.
The four men were linked only by their shared opposition to the invasion. Sentsov, who had played an active role in Euromaidan, coordinated efforts by Maidan car owners to take food, water and medical supplies to the Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea besieged by Russian forces. When the Ukrainian soldiers were given just a couple of hours to leave Crimea, it was Sentsov who organized their evacuation.
As well as his work as a filmmaker, which had already gained him renown beyond Ukraine, Sentsov was bringing up his two children, Alina then 11, and Vlad, who is two years younger, and has autism.
Alina was at home with her father when FSB (Russian Security Service) officers turned up on May 10, 2014. The search produced nothing, but Sentsov was taken away and has not seen his family since then. Russia continues to claim that he was arrested on May 11, to conceal the first hours when he was subjected to savage torture.
He and the other three men were all held incommunicado and without access to lawyers, first in Simferopol, then in Moscow. It is likely that secrecy was to ensure that the most obvious signs of torture had faded.
On May 30, the FSB issued a public statement claiming that the four men were members of a Right Sector ‘sabotage and terrorist group’. In the style of the Stalinist show trials, no consideration was given to plausibility or even accuracy. The men were alleged to have been planning terrorist attacks in Simferopol; Yalta and Sevastopol, with the aim being, for example, to destroy non-existent railway bridges. Other than those grandiose claims, there were the above-mentioned Molotov cocktail incidents which had been thrown in the night into offices occupied only during the day.
Virtually everything about this case is reminiscent of the worst repressive Soviet methods, and it is no accident that the trial of Sentsov and Kolchenko was called ‘absolutely Stalinist’.
The FSB statement was accompanied by videos of ‘confessions’ by Afanasyev and Chirniy. The two men were tried separately and received the minimum 7-year sentences.
Sentsov and Kolchenko continued to reject all the charges and Sentsov gave details of the torture applied to force him to ‘confess’. He was openly warned that if he didn’t give the testimony demanded, he would get 20 years and rot in a Russian prison.
Russia prohibited the men’s lawyers from divulging any information, and it was only after the trial began in July 2015 that it became entirely clear that there was nothing to substantiate the charges. The renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre almost immediately declared both Sentsov and Kolchenko political prisoners.
Since the only ‘evidence’ came from confessions, it is of critical importance that Chirniy refused to testify in court, and then Afanasyev took the stand. He retracted all testimony as having been extracted through torture, and said that every word he had said about Sentsov had been false. He was shortly afterwards also recognized by Memorial as a political prisoner.
There was thus no evidence against Sentsov and Kolchenko, and Afanasyev gave details of torture that corresponded closely to those repeated from the outset by Sentsov.
All of this was ignored by the prosecutor and judges and on August 25, 2015, Sentsov was – as predicted by the FSB, given a 20-year sentence, Kolchenko – 10 years.
Both men are being held in maximum security prisoners thousands of kilometres from their homes.
Russia has also taken the lawless step of claiming that both men ‘automatically’ became Russian citizens, and is denying them access to the Ukrainian consul and their rights under international law.
Putin is hoping that the international community will gradually forget about the men, and that Russians have been so duped by the state-controlled media that they will believe that the men are imprisoned for ‘terrorism’.
Not a chance, and it is important that he understands this now. He and all those judges, prosecutors and others implicated in the monstrous sentences knowingly passed on innocent men.
We are therefore seeking sanctions against all those who have taken part in what has rightly been termed ’ideologically motivated state terror’. With Russia’s repressive measures against Ukrainians, especially in occupied Crimea, on the increase, it is important to send a clear message that there can be no impunity for those who obey criminal orders.
Please help #FreeSentsov and other Ukrainian political prisoners by asking politicians and journalists in your country to support targeted sanctions and to demand answers from Moscow. Why, 150 years after Russia abolished serfdom, is it treating Ukrainians as serfs to be seized together with its Crimean land-grab? How, over a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has Russia descended to sentencing those who oppose its invasion for 20 years?
A model letter and some other ideas can be found here:
By Halya Coynash, for Human Rights in Ukraine