PEN International should expel Russian ‘partner’ for betrayal of Oleg Sentsov
The degradation of Russia’s PEN-Centre, part of the renowned PEN International, into a Soviet-style organization unwilling to buck those in power has been evident since 2014, but nowhere more shamefully than in its failure to react to Russia’s politically-motivated persecution of their Ukrainian colleagues.
Ironically, the most overt failure of the Russian PEN-Centre to defend Ukrainian filmmaker and Russian hostage Oleg Sentsov went largely unnoticed due to shoddy reporting. Even those Russian and Ukrainian media who amended their original reports on 24 December 2016 to read that it was individual members who had called for Sentsov to be pardoned, still did not think to ask why the organization itself should have so emphatically distanced itself from such an appeal. Russian PEN would, after all, have been joining colleagues from all over the world in calling for Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko’s release and recognizing their monstrous 20- and 10-year sentences as being linked solely with their opposition to Russia’s invasion of their native Crimea.
Many well-known Russian writers, such as Vladimir Voinovich and Ludmila Ulitskaya, left Russian PEN in disgust some time ago. One of those who remained – journalist Sergei Parkhomenko – has now been ‘expelled’ over his criticism of PEN’s craven response to the appeal to pardon Oleg Sentsov. The PEN Executive Committee meeting of Dec 28, 2016, only reported on Jan 10, also suspended one other member for a year, and issued a ‘warning’ to another, in each case essentially for expressing their views.
The harshest punishment, however, was meted out to Parkhomenko for what the Executive Committee called ‘provocation’, defamatory remarks and alleged breaches of the PEN Charter. The ‘offending’ words, although identified as a radio broadcast, were in fact reposted on Ekho Moskhvy from Parkhomenko’s Facebook page and pertain to Russian PEN’s shameful statement over Sentsov.
Parkhomenko’s words are certainly hard-hitting. The title alludes to the famous words from Anton Chekhov about squeezing the slave out of oneself drop by drop, and clearly suggests the difficulty Russian PEN-Centre is having in doing this. As an example of the sad fate of the onetime human rights organization, the author suggests looking at the ‘Statement’ issued shortly after the appeal on Dec 24 by members of Russian PEN and other Russian writers, and a public disclaimer from the official organization’s press centre.
Parkhomenko notes that the text is issued simply as ‘Statement’ (and is also undated). Not surprising, really, when anything else would require the use of ‘unacceptable’ words like “in defence”, “freedom”, “justice”, “pardon”, etc. This way, the text is so anonymous and devoid of such “scary” words, that there’s a chance it won’t even get noticed. The ‘statement’ expresses “concern” for Sentsov’s fate and asks the Russian President and courts to help “ease his conditions”. Nothing more in this supposed ’rights-defending statement’.
The ‘statement’ also argues that Sentsov cannot be pardoned since he hasn’t asked for a pardon. Such “human rights defence”, Parkhomenko writes, is out of fear of difficulties from two quarters. On the one hand, they don’t want to displease the Kremlin by really coming out in defence of a political prisoner, but on the other, they’re worried that PEN International will react negatively to a total lack of response.
Parkhomenko and the others penalized also drew attention to what they alleged are faked minutes from a meeting which purportedly elected the Russian PEN-Centre leadership.
Having asked for more lenient conditions, the authors of this extraordinary ’statement’ continue:
“At the same time, we do not wish to, and will not defend only “selected people”, only those whom Russian or foreign destructive political forces point to. In view of the above, we demand that the Kyiv authorities publicize and then improve the conditions of Russian citizens who have ended up in Ukrainian prisons during the conflict in the South-East of Ukraine”.
With respect to the question of O. Sentsov’s pardon and the constant appeals to the public by a group of citizens presenting their opinion as the view of the entire Russian PEN-centre, and unlawfully using our brand, we wish to state that we always supported and will support acts of mercy.”
They then list the legal requirements, namely that the prisoner ask for a pardon, before ending as follows: “Therefore, all attempts to force the authorities to act against the law, in order to then accuse them of that also, are, in our view, political provocation. We are human rights defenders, not lawbreakers, and we do not intend to take part in such unlawful actions. We will be merciful, but we will not act against the law!”
The pathos cannot hide one crucial point. By mentioning the war in Donbas, the authors show that they view Sentsov’s imprisonment as part of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. There is no evidence of Russian civilians imprisoned on overtly political charges in Ukraine. Even if there were, however, there would be no cause to link them with Oleg Sentsov – or Crimean journalist Mykola Semena and other victims of Russia’s political persecution whom the Russian PEN-Centre choose to ignore.
At least 3 Russian writers / journalists publicly dissociated themselves from Russian PEN, following the news on Jan 10. It would surely be more fitting for the International PEN-Club to publicly disown an organization that has so totally discredited itself and betrayed writers facing persecution.
World-renowned Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko and two other Crimean opponents of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea – Gennady Afanasyev and Oleksiy Chirniy – were arrested in May 2014. They were held incommunicado in Simferopol and tortured, then taken illegally to Russia where the FSB claimed that Sentsov had masterminded and the others had taken part in a ‘Right Sector terrorist plot’.
There was no evidence at all, only the videoed ‘confessions’ of Chirniy and Afanasyev. On July 31, 2015, Afanasyev demonstrated real courage and stood up at the trial of Sentsov and Kolchenko, stating clearly that any confessions had been extracted through torture. He retracted all his testimony and later, when he was finally given a real lawyer, described in detail the torture he had been subjected to. His account was totally in keeping with the allegations made from the beginning by both Sentsov and Kolchenko of torture.
There was almost total secrecy about the case before the trial, with the men’s lawyers prohibited from saying anything about it. Both Sentsov and Kolchenko were recognized as political prisoners by the Memorial Human Rights Centre within days of the trial beginning when the lack of any grounds for the charges could no longer be concealed. Afanasyev was also declared a political prisoner after his appearance in court.
There was literally nothing against Sentsov at all, while the one protest action in which Kolchenko was involved would normally be treated as hooliganism. Despite this, and the fact that one of the two other men had retracted his testimony and the other had refused to appear in court, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years’ maximum security prison, Kolchenko to 10 years. Both men are being held thousands of kilometres from their families.
The “Russian or foreign destructive political forces” mentioned by Russian PEN include renowned Russian writers, world-famous film directors and film academies, human rights NGOs, as well as the European Union, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and European Parliament, not to mention the governments of all democratic countries.