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Moscow deaf to 3 years of international outcry to free imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker

Hollywood star Johnny Depp became the face of the international campaign Imprisoned for Art on behalf of Oleg Sentsov.
Moscow deaf to 3 years of international outcry to free imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker
Article by: Ihor Vynokurov
Edited by: Alya Shandra

These days mark the third anniversary of a cynical anti-Ukrainian propaganda operation in occupied Crimea that featured fantastic accusations but ended with the four real hostages in Russian prisons. Of them, only one has been released while the rest, filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, student and activist Oleksandr Kolchenko, and historian Oleksiy Chyrniy, remain behind bars. In April 2017, PEN America honored Oleg Sentsov as its annual Freedom to Write Award winner and called for his immediate release – but Moscow pretends to be deaf to the voices of the global creative community.

Abduction in occupied Crimea

On May 10, 2014, Oleg Sentsov, along with three other Ukrainian citizens (Kolchenko, Chyrniy, and Hennadii Afanasiev), was captured by the officers of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in the Crimean capital, Simferopol. The agents threw Sentsov into the bus, handcuffed, put a bag on his head and took him to the former Crimean headquarters of the Ukrainian Security Service, which had been seized by the FSB after the Russian invasion.

• Oleg Sentsov was born 1976 in Simferopol (Crimea, Ukraine, then part of the USSR);
• Is a film director best known for his 2011 film Gamer. His movie Rhino was a work-in-progress when he was arrested;
• Participated in the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity of 2013–14;
• Supported the Ukrainian Armed Forces during Putin’s invasion of Crimea and opposed its illegal annexation by Russia;
• Has a daughter (born 2002) and a son (born 2004).

At the end of May 2014, the four arrested Crimeans, including Sentsov, were moved to the Lefortovo pretrial jail in Moscow. The forced transportation of them from Crimea, a constitutional part of Ukraine, to the territory of the Russian Federation was a violation of international law.

Trumped-up charge of “terrorism”

The case was falsified with the clear aim to “prove” that the Russian Anschluss of Crimea was the right thing to do and was aimed to defend its Russian-speaking population from an imaginary Ukrainian threat. The occupation authorities and pro-Kremlin propaganda outlets depicted Sentsov as the organizer of a Ukrainian nationalist “sabotage and terrorist group,” which allegedly committed arson attacks against the local offices of the organization “Russian Community of Crimea” and of the ruling “United Russia” Party in Simferopol. One of the “members” of this right-wing “group” was said to be Oleksandr Kolchenko, known for his persistent activity in the anarchist and anti-fascist movement.

The “conspirators” were accused of preparing the blowing up of the Lenin monument and the Eternal Flame memorial. Such intentions, even if supported by the evidence, had been typically considered by the Russian judiciary as hooligan and never as “terrorist.”

No evidence that would indicate Sentsov’s implication in plotting of the supposed “attacks” has been presented. The whole incrimination was based exclusively on the false and deeply inconsistent testimonies of the other defendants, Afanasiev and Chyrniy, obtained under duress. Afanasiev then openly renounced the wrong nature of his “testimony” on trial. Sentsov has never acknowledged himself “guilty.”

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

Medieval torture

Like the other defendants, Sentsov was subject to barbaric torture to make him sign a self-denunciative “confession.” He describes being beaten “with their hands, feet, and special means, while I was standing, lying, and sitting. It was hard to keep sitting on a chair when being beaten with a club. They choked me with a bag and threatened to rape me with a club.” The injury on Oleg’s body was documented, but the Russian Investigative Committee refused to bring an action in view of this fact.

Cannibalistic sentence

Sentsov was tried by the military court in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don in summer 2015. Amnesty International and other human rights experts monitoring the case compared what was going on in the courtroom to the infamous Stalinist show trials of the 1930s. The court found Oleg “guilty” and sentenced him to 20-year imprisonment in a tight security penal colony. He was sent to serve it to Yakutsk in East Siberia, one of the coldest cities on Earth.

So far, most of the correspondence sent to support Sentsov has not been delivered to him.

Citizenship fraud and denial of return to Ukraine

In October 2016, the Russian Ministry of Justice turned down the official request for the return of Sentsov to Ukraine under the international Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons. The Ministry asserted that he had automatically obtained the Russian citizenship after the annexation of Crimea, though Sentsov had never applied for the it, rejected it and recognized himself the national of the only state: Ukraine.

“I am not a serf; I cannot be transferred with the land,” he stated at the preliminary hearing in July 2014.

International outcry is not yet enough to shake up the Kremlin

Numerous international institutions and organizations, including the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament have been supporting Sentsov and calling on Russia to release him. The respected Russian “Memorial” Human Rights Center recognized Sentsov as a political prisoner.

The European Film Academy and world film celebrities, including Wim Wenders, Stephen Daldry, Agnieszka Holland, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Andrzej Wajda, Pedro Almodóvar, Krzysztof Zanussi, Michel Hazanavicius, Pascale Ferran, Bertrand Tavernier, Aki Kaurismäki, Mike Lee, Pawel Pawlikowski, Béla Tarr demanded justice for their Ukrainian colleague.

The Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf dedicated his acceptance of the 2015 Robert Bresson Prize of the Venice Film Festival to Sentsov, calling the conviction a major injustice and the sentence “a move to intimidate all Russian society, especially the intellectuals and artists.” In November 2016, Hollywood star Johnny Depp became the face of the international campaign Imprisoned for Art on behalf of Oleg Sentsov.

The Polish Film Academy has repeatedly called to release Sentsov. The famous Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski wrote an open letter to Russian director Nikita Mikhakov with an entreaty to help Sentsov but got a reply that this was impossible.

Polish filmmakers show support for Oleg Sentsov at an award ceremony

A number of Russian filmmakers: Alexander Sokurov, Alexei German Jr., Andrey Zvyagintsev, Pavel Bardin, Alexander Fedorchenko, Askold Kurov, and Vladimir Kott have also spoken out in defense of Sentsov. In particular, Zvyagintsev called the intention to keep Sentsov in jail for two decades a monstrous wish. At the end of 2016, Sokurov begged to Putin’s face for mercy to the Ukrainian hostage, but to no avail.

In response, multiple filmmakers and cultural actors around the world signed an open letter in support of Sentsov, launched at the initiative of Cinéorama, the European Academy of Cinema, the Civil Society for Perception and Distribution of Authors, and other artistic organizations. Sokurov’s plea was also supported by the open letter of more than eighty Russian writers, journalists, and scholars.

In the fall of 2016, the Belarusian Free Theater performed the play Burning Doors in the UK and Australia, with the third part devoted to the show trial of Sentsov and the physicality of his suffering, endurance, and resistance to tyranny.

Belarus Free Theater participants stand with the names of the Kremlin's Ukrainian hostages
Belarus Free Theater participants stand with the names of the Kremlin’s Ukrainian hostages. On 10 Dec. 2016, at the 29th European Film Awards in Wroclaw, Poland, Maria Alyokhina of punk band Pussy Riot (whose members had been imprisoned for criticizing Russian President Putin) called for the release of Oleg Sentsov

In February 2017, Askold Kurov presented his documentary The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov at the Berlin International Film Festival. The screening was accompanied by the demonstration of solidarity with the prisoner on the part of artists, members of the German Bundestag, diplomats, and countless viewers. The chief film critic for the film paper Variety notes that the movie should be watched by the audience up to US President Trump to understand how the Russian state really operates.

The filmmakers used drawings to illustrate Oleg Sentsov's life which was unavailable in film
The filmmakers of “The Trial” used drawings to illustrate Oleg Sentsov’s life which was unavailable in film

On 10 May 2017, the sad anniversary of Sentsov’s arrest, renowned writers, artists, directors, and producers signed an open letter to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging him to advocate for the release of the Ukrainian political prisoner:

“Given President Putin’s brazen willingness to flout human rights norms and the rule of law, and his relentless targeting of dissenting writers, artists, activists, and politicians,” they emphasize, “it would be irresponsible to heed Mr. Putin’s wishes and ignore Sentsov’s plight.”

You can join the appeal of the celebrities here.

Edited by: Alya Shandra
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