’Terrorism’ trials for Crimean film director and other opponents of annexation
Oleg Sentsov (top) and Alexander Kolchenko, two of the three men arrested by the Russian FSB. Both have now been sent to Moscow with their families told that this is for ’expert assessments’. They can be held in custody without a conviction for a year. Less is known about the third person detained, and his family are presently avoiding publicity, however the charges seem no less fabricated in his case
Russia’s FSB has arrested a well-known Crimean film director, Oleg Sentsov, and two young men, apparently on terrorism charges. The 37-year-old film maker and civic activist is reported to have already been taken to the Lefortovo remand prison in Moscow, 23-year-old Alexander Kolchenko was taken to Moscow on May 23. Gennady Afanasyev, also 23, appears to still be in the Crimea.
In any country arrests on suspicion of terrorism may initially be veiled in secrecy for security reasons. Two months after Russia annexed the Crimea, however, the mystery behind these three arrests is simply disturbing, particularly given the fact that all three men are known for their strong civic position and opposition to Russia’s occupation. This is the only real link. Oleg Sentsov and Gennady Afanasyev know each other but they are of quite different ages, and Sentsov is not only busy as a film maker, but is bringing up two young children by himself. There is no evidence of either knowing Kolchenko at all.
The total secrecy over the FSB’S Crimean arrests is particularly worrying following the 5-year sentence passed on a human rights activist in Dagestan Zarema Bagavutdinova. That trial, condemned as fabricated and politically motivated by the Memorial Human Rights Centre, was based on the ‘testimony’ of four secret witnesses and was held behind closed doors.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture is following the situation and appeals have been made for Sentsov’s release by Ukraine’s National Filmmakers’ Union, the European Film Academy and Medienboar Berlin Brandenburg, a leading German Film Foundation.
All find the idea of Sentsov’s involvement in any terrorist plot absurd. Those who know the other two say the same of them. No terrorist acts have been reported in the Crimea, nor any thwarted attempts, further fuelling the suspicion that all three men have been targeted for their open opposition to Russian occupation.
Oleg Sentsov is an ethnic Russian, born in the Crimea and categorically opposed to Russia’s annexation. He was also involved in the AutoMaidan protests linked with EuroMaidan. According to journalist Kateryna Serhatskova who first informed of Sentsov’s detention, he took an active stand in favour of Ukrainian unity and came to the assistance of Ukrainian military servicemen trapped in their units. He also helped to get journalists and civic activists out of the Crimea.
He is also bringing up two children alone. His 9-year-old son who has autism was thankfully with his grandmother when the FSB turned up at 11 p.m. on May 11. His 12-year-old daughter was not so lucky.
It is not at all clear what he is accused of. Dmitry Dinze, a Russian lawyer who earlier represented Pussy Riot members, has taken on the case, but as of May 17 told Radio Svoboda that he had not yet seen Sentsov and knew very little. “He is suspected of possessing a weapon, and of either organizing, or taking part in planning a terrorist act, or of a terrorist act already committed, that remains unclear.”
Asked if he believes the charges are politically motivated, he answered: “If our law enforcement bodies are trying in some way to repress activists from Ukraine in the Crimea, then I’d say there is of course a political component.”
This view is shared by Sentsov’s colleagues in Ukraine and abroad. The European Film Academy has demanded Sentsov’s release and states that “the EFA Board cannot tolerate it when people are persecuted for political reasons”. Kirsten Niehuus, head of Medienboar Berlin Brandenburg, which is among the European backers of Sentsov’s new film Rhino, says that Sentsov’s only "crime" is his opposition to the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
According to Serhatskova, Gennady Afanasyev was the first to be arrested, a couple of days before Sentsov. His mother says that they are claiming he organized two terrorist acts. As mentioned, there have been no terrorist acts, but this does not appear to worry Russia’s FSB. They also allege that he was planning to blow up a monument to Lenin and some other places in Simferopol.
Afanasyev is a trained lawyer, but has recently been involved in photography. He was also an active supporter of Ukrainian unity and took part in filming video clips to this effect before the so-called referendum of March 16 on joining Russia.
Alexander Kolchenko was arrested on May 16 on Franko Boulevard, near the FSB department. He was forced to the ground and then dragged into the building. He has not been seen since.
Kolchenko is well-known among civic activists in the Crimea. He holds left-wing views and until recently often came into conflict with Ukrainian nationalists. Ideological differences were put on hold following Russia’s effective invasion and annexation of the Crimea which Kolchenko totally opposed.
Thus far three men who share a stand of active opposition to Russian annexation, but nothing else, are in FSB custody, facing a minimum sentence of 10 years if convicted of ‘terrorism’. The only thing clear is that maximum publicity is needed for their cases. With such methods and understanding of ‘terrorism’ anybody could be next.
Details for how you can help the three men’s families can be found here