In the June 2017 issue of Literary Review, I wrote about the detention of Oleg Sentsov, a prominent Ukrainian writer and film-maker best known for his 2011 film, Gamer. Sentsov took part in the Euromaidan demonstrations that toppled former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. He was detained by the Russian security services at his apartment in Crimea on 10 May. The official cause of arrest was ‘suspicion of plotting terrorist acts’ and membership of a ‘terrorist group’, namely the Ukrainian right-wing movement Pravyi Sektor (‘Right Sector’).
Sentsov was held in Russia for over a year in pre-trial detention before being formally charged with establishing a terrorist group, politically motivated arson and conspiring to blow up a statue of Lenin, all of which he denied. He claims that he was tortured while undergoing interrogation. Following a trial in the military court of Rostov-on-Don, in which a key prosecution witness retracted his statement, saying it had been extracted under torture, Sentsov was found guilty. On 20 August 2015, he was sentenced to twenty years in prison (the sentence was upheld on appeal in November of that year). The Russian authorities denied a request for extradition to Ukraine on the grounds that Sentsov had become a Russian citizen following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. He is currently being held in the penal colony of Labytnangi in Siberia, thousands of kilometres away from his home. PEN believes that Sentsov was imprisoned for his opposition to Russia’s occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea and is campaigning for his release.
Since 2014, the Russian authorities have overseen a systematic crackdown on independent media organisations, opposition politicians and activists in the region. According to PEN, forty-three people expressing dissent have been forcibly disappeared. Six have since been found dead; the whereabouts of seventeen others remains unknown. None of these disappearances has been effectively investigated. Legislation has been passed threatening anyone who makes public statements that ‘harm the territorial integrity of Russia’ with five years’ imprisonment.
Sentsov has been on hunger strike since 14 May. He is demanding the release of Ukrainian nationals currently imprisoned in Russia on politically motivated grounds. He has reportedly told his lawyer that he is prepared to die should his demand be ignored.
Sentsov’s lengthy pre-trial detention and the failure to investigate his allegations of torture, as well as the fact that he was tried by a Russian military court and is now being held in Russia, are all causes for concern. PEN is further alarmed by his poor state of health, exacerbated by his hunger strike. At the time of writing, Sentsov is in a critical condition. He was taken to intensive care on 15 June. According to his lawyer, who visited him in prison on 7 August, his heart and kidney problems have worsened, he has low haemoglobin levels, resulting in anaemia and a slow heartbeat, and has lost 30kg. He is refusing to be transferred to a civilian hospital as he is too weak to stand and says that medical staff have previously been hostile towards him. In a note sent via his lawyer to his cousin Natalia Kaplan, Sentsov stated that the authorities are not passing on letters addressed to him and that he is being kept in an ‘information vacuum’. He believes that ‘the end is near’.
Readers might like to send urgent appeals calling on the Russian authorities to release Oleg Sentsov immediately; urging them to respect Sentsov’s human rights, including the right to freedom from torture and inhumane or degrading treatment; calling on them to ensure that he is treated humanely at all times and not punished in any way for his hunger strike; and demanding that they give Sentsov access to all correspondence.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenko
Embassy of the Russian Federation
6/7 Kensington Palace Gardens
London W8 4QP
Fax: 020 7727 8625
Tatiana Nikolaevna Moskalkova
Human Rights Ombudsman of the Russian Federation
Ulitsa Miasnitskaia 47
Messages of support for Oleg Sentsov can be sent care of email@example.com. You can tweet demands for his release using the hashtag #FreeSentsov.
Updates: On 31 July, the Cairo Military Court sentenced poet Galal El-Behairy (LR, July 2018) to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($560) after convicting him of ‘insulting the military’ and ‘spreading false news’ in his latest book of poetry, The Finest Women on Earth. El-Behairy also faces additional charges in a separate case being investigated by the High State Security Prosecution for writing the lyrics to Ramy Essam’s song ‘Balaha’. On 3 March 2018, following the release of the song, El-Behairy was arrested, beaten and tortured. PEN continues to call for his immediate and unconditional release and for the charges against him to be dropped.
Dareen Tatour (LR, March 2018), a Palestinian poet and citizen of Israel, was given a five-month prison sentence (with a further six months suspended) by the Nazareth District Court after being convicted of incitement to violence and supporting terror organisations. Tatour’s conviction relates to a video in which she recites one of her poems, entitled ‘Qawim ya sha’abi, qawimhum’ (‘Resist, My People, Resist Them’). As Tatour has already served three months in jail, she is due to serve only the remaining two months. PEN believes that Tatour has been targeted for peacefully exercising her right to free expression through her poetry and activism and continues to call for her release.