Since the occupation and annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the Russian authorities have systematically silenced critical voices and restricted media freedom in the region. Article 280.1 of the Russian Criminal Code penalises anyone making public statements that ‘harm the territorial integrity of Russia’ with up to five years in prison. One prominent critic of the Russian government’s policies, now languishing in prison, is Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and film-maker best known for his 2011 film Gamer. Sentsov took part in the Euromaidan demonstrations, which toppled former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, and helped deliver food to Ukrainian soldiers following Russia’s occupation of Crimea.
On 10 May of that year, Sentsov was arrested by the Russian security services at his apartment in Crimea. He claims that he was subjected to a brutal three-hour ordeal involving beatings, suffocation and threats of sexual assault. These allegations have never been investigated. The reasons for his arrest, as recorded the following day, were ‘suspicion of plotting terrorist acts’ and membership of a terrorist group, namely the Ukrainian right-wing party Pravy Sektor (‘Right Sector’). On 23 May, Sentsov was transferred to Russia, where he spent over a year in pretrial detention. He was eventually charged with establishing a terrorist group, politically motivated arson and conspiring to blow up a statue of Lenin, all of which he denied. On 20 August 2015, Sentsov was found guilty and sentenced to twenty years in prison by a military court in Rostov-on-Don, after a blatantly unfair trial that some have described as ‘Stalinist’. His sentence was upheld on appeal three months later.
Sentsov’s trial has been condemned internationally. The main prosecution witness retracted his statement, saying it had been extracted under duress. In April 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed concerns at ‘allegations that Oleg Sentsov has been deprived against his will of his Ukrainian nationality, tried in Moscow as a citizen of the Russian Federation and subject to legal proceedings that fail to meet the requirements of Articles 9 and 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’. It called on the Russian authorities to investigate all allegations of serious human rights violations and to ensure that appropriate and transparent procedures are in place for Crimean residents to retain Ukrainian nationality.
PEN has highlighted serious flaws in the judicial proceedings against Sentsov, including his lengthy pretrial detention, the failure to investigate his allegations of torture and the fact that he is being held in Russia. In July last year the Russian authorities published an updated list of ‘terrorists and extremists’ from Crimea that included Sentsov. In October they denied a request for Sentsov’s extradition to Ukraine on the grounds that he had become a Russian citizen following the annexation of Crimea. PEN argues that under international law, Crimea constitutes occupied territory and, as the occupying power, Russia is obliged not to transfer civilian prisoners out of the territory. Trying civilians in military courts also violates international human rights norms.
In April, Sentsov was awarded the 2017 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. His cousin Natalia Kaplan, who accepted the award on his behalf, stated: ‘Oleg is but one of forty-four Ukrainian prisoners who are incarcerated in Russia today. He is very concerned for his fellow political prisoners. He asks that, when you speak of him, you don’t forget the others.’ Sentsov also wrote a moving letter to PEN America in which he concluded:
It’s very hard to feel like a person when you’ve lost the most important thing to you … Children are probably the most valuable thing that will remain after us. We will live on in them even after our death. Therefore we must not spoil their lives by educating them; we should educate ourselves, and simply love our children. And if at all possible, teach them these two truly necessary things: to read books and to speak the truth.
The last time I went to the Maidan, where people had already begun perishing, my mother said, ‘Why are you going there? You have two children!’ I answered that it was precisely because of that that I was going there – I don’t want them to live in a country of slaves … the struggle continues, but now without me. I’m in prison and like any prisoner it is very difficult for me to answer a simple childish question: ‘Daddy, when are you coming home?’
Readers might like to send appeals urging the Russian authorities to release Oleg Sentsov immediately; demanding that any charges of terrorism should be heard by a civilian court under Ukrainian law and as required by international humanitarian law; seeking assurances that any testimony obtained through torture or other ill treatment will be excluded from proceedings; and calling on the authorities to order an independent and impartial investigation into Sentsov’s allegations of torture and ill treatment and to ensure that those found responsible be brought to justice.
Appeals to be sent to:
His Excellency Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenko
Embassy of the Russian Federation
6/7 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QP
Fax: 020 7727 8625
Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation
Yury Yakovlevich Chaika
Prosecutor General’s Office, ulitsa B Dmitrovka d.15a
125993 Moscow GSP-3, Russian Federation
Human Rights Ombudsman of the Russian Federation
Tatiana Nikolaevna Moskalkova ulitsa Miasnitskaia 47
107084 Moscow, Russian Federation
If you would like to send a message of support to Oleg Sentsov and his family, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.