Will the Sakharov prize help free Oleg Sentsov?

At a rally to release Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. Photo: Ukrinform.ua 

Op-ed, Political prisoners

Article by: Khrystyna Karelska

The story of the Ukrainian filmmaker has become known all over the world since 10 May 2014, when he was illegally arrested at his home in Simferopol by the Russian FSB right after the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia. After having been threatened and beaten, Oleg was transferred to Moscow. The rest was just a mere puppet show, conducted by Russia.

The charges were cynical and unbelievable – the organization of terrorist acts, possessing illegal firearms. However, the prosecutors did not manage to introduce real ample evidence to the Rostov-on-Don Court to prove such serious charges. During the trial, some witnesses admitted that they had been harassed to perjure against Oleg. To the whole world democratic community, it was obvious that the case was totally fabricated. Oleg himself constantly reiterated that the whole case is a fiction and that he is not guilty of anything. Nevertheless, Court’s sentence was harsh and firm – 20 years of prison for Oleg Sentsov.

Read more: The Sentsov-Kolchenko case: what you need to know

Since 2015, Oleg has been detained in the remotest prison of the Russian Federation – the Labytnangi Penal Colony. At that time he was partially forgotten, when unexpectedly he went on a hunger strike on May 14 this year with a demand to release all political prisoners who are being illegally detained in Russia. According to his lawyer, Dmitry Dinze: “The hunger strike will continue till the bitter end: either he will die, or his demands will be fulfilled. He did not demand of his own release. It’s only about releasing political prisoners.”

Oleg stopped his hunger strike after 145 days after having been threatened to be force-fed.

Read more: From Crimea to Siberia: the prisons where Russia holds hunger-striking political prisoners Sentsov&Kolchenko

What has Oleg achieved by such a courageous act? We have seen millions of people who organized demonstrations with the demand to release him all over the world, petitions, one of which was even launched on the website of the White House, resolutions of the European Parliament, appeals to the Kremlin from politicians, ambassadors, Presidents, prominent world artists, human rights activists and organizations, myriads of posts on Facebook and Twitter with hashtags #FreeSentsov.

The hopes were rather high before the World Cup in Russia this summer, but it ended with no result for Oleg. Everyone hoped for “shuttle diplomacy” and possible exchange but instead speculations and lots of fake news regarding Oleg’s health and release have been witnessed.

At the time of writing this article, another step to Oleg’s release has been made – he was awarded the prestigious human rights award – Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The words of the President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani echoed in our hearts –

“Through his courage and determination, by putting his life in danger, the filmmaker Oleg Sentsov has become a symbol of the struggle for the release of political prisoners held in Russia and around the world”.

Is it a sign of salvation for Oleg? Unfortunately, there is no definite answer to this question.

As many political analysts have stated before, Oleg’s fate is in hands of one man – Vladimir Putin, who has remained deaf to all appeals. Oleg, like the rest of Ukrainian political prisoners, is viewed as some kind of “merchandise” that could be sold or exchanged at the most convenient political moment for Russia.

Likewise, Ukrainian political prisoners have become one of the soft tools of the Russian hybrid warfare so that the Kremlin could have a leverage over Ukraine in the future negotiations on the international arena.

To be brief, the Sakharov prize clearly indicates solidarity and undeniable support for Oleg by European politicians, as well as their readiness to continue pressure on Russia on international platforms. Such a move is totally welcomed by all EU representatives who have livened up hopes for possible release not only of Oleg but also of all Ukrainian political prisoners as well. But the Sakharov prize alone is not enough for Putin to trigger this process.

Earlier, the world community allowed Russia to hold the World Cup despite constant violations of human rights and norms of international law from the Russian side, the act that has indicated fear of Western politician before Russia. At that moment Oleg was just at the beginning of his fight against the Kremlin and probably more decisive actions from the EU and the USA should have been undertaken.

Read also: World intellectuals implore politicians to boycott World Cup until Russia frees Ukrainian political prisoners

Time went and everyone counted Oleg’s days of his hunger strike, bombarding news about it on all social-networking sites. The meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July has also shattered all hopes for his immediate release. And now there is the Sakharov Prize that may be perceived as the consolation prize or a mere gesture of solidarity with no further harsh actions neither from the EU nor from the USA.

Time still flies, and Oleg is still in the Labytnangi prison, suffering for justice and freedom. His mother and his children are still waiting for his long-awaited return. He has become a symbol of Ukraine’s freedom-loving spirit, of all political prisoners, despite the indecisiveness of Western politicians and their inability to capitalize on achievements of ordinary people, who have undertaken huge efforts to turn world attention to Oleg’s fate.

The Sakharov Prize is does not mean salvation for Oleg, but it could have positive repercussions in the future on condition that the EU together with the USA would take harsh actions towards Russia’s aggressive hybrid policy. Pressure on the Russian authorities should be further pursued to achieve the main goal – to release all Ukrainian political prisoners. To sum up, it would not be the last domino to fall in a series of international events that could make a visible impact on the future of Ukrainians who are illegally detained in Russia.

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