Ukrainian MP helps Russian disinformation campaign against Oleg Sentsov
Russian President Vladimir Putin has two options in the light of international attention to Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike which can only cast a shadow on Russia’s reputation on the eve of the World Cup. Putin can agree to free at very least the imprisoned filmmaker, although Sentsov is demanding the release of all Russia’s Ukrainian political prisoners. Or he can continue to claim that Sentsov is a ‘terrorist’, and rely on Russia’s propaganda media and obliging friends in other countries to join in spreading lies.
The disinformation last week, most frustratingly, came from Ukraine, with Yevhen Muraev, MP making an offensive and inaccurate assertion about Sentsov in a public broadcast on TV 112 on June 7. This appears to have been part of a concentrated disinformation campaign begun on Muraev’s controversial News One TV channel, and taken up by certain other media. The gift all of this provided the Kremlin cannot be overestimated. Russian state-controlled media could claim, almost justifiably, that a Ukrainian MP had “called Sentsov a terrorist”. They were then given the chance to continue pushing this line as Ukraine’s SBU [Security Service] initiated a criminal investigation leading nowhere against the MP for ‘treason’.
The utterances that aroused particular anger were the following: “You can view Sentsov in different ways. From the point of view that the man planned arson attacks and explosions, for a part of the population he is a terrorist, for the nationalist part he is, probably, a hero. Time will put everything in place.”
Muraev’s entire statement was based on a totally false allegation. It is impossible, without bending the facts, to view Sentsov in different ways as the filmmaker neither planned, nor carried out any arson attacks or explosions. The 20-year sentence he received was based solely on the testimony of two men, Oleksiy Chyrniy and Gennady Afanasyev, who had been held incommunicado for almost three weeks and who were then given minimum sentences for ‘cooperating’ with the FSB. Afanasyev had, at great danger to himself, stood up at the trial of Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko and retracted all testimony, saying it had been given under torture and was all untrue.
Muraev’s statement should have immediately been pulled up and corrected. It was not, and one of the lessons to be learned from the events last week is how to recognize classic attempts at disinformation and to identify those media who appear to have deliberately set out to mislead their audience.
It was Oleksiy Kopytko who first painstakingly tracked down parts of what he called “a textbook example of how, out of nothing, you end up with a situation where “nothing is unequivocal”.
There had been an earlier attempt on 4 June by Olha Shariy to try to create a ‘story’ out of the interrogation back in May 2014 at which Afanasyev gave false testimony against Sentsov. The attempt largely failed, attracting very little interest.
Then on 6 June, Kopytko notes, TV Channel 112 got on board. It essentially blew up a story out of nothing by asking all and sundry to comment on the protocol of Afanasyev’s interrogation. On 7 June, Viktor Zubritsky, who is reported to be the owner of Channel 112, posted these protocols on his Facebook page.
There were a number of quite momentous developments in Ukraine on 7 June, yet Channel 112 kept returning to the ‘story’ around Afanasyev’s interrogation. There were two key assertions. The first was that Afanasyev had handed Sentsov over, the second that he was lying when he said that he had done so under torture.
Kopytko describes various attempts by Channel 112 to push these messages, culminating in the interview with Muraev on 7 June. Kopytko notes that the presenter Tetyana Khelnytska brought up the Afanasyev topic a second time after Muraev’s first response was not clear enough. She also made a very misleading assertion, claiming that Afanasyev had only retracted his testimony after his release and return to Ukraine in June 2016.
It seems extremely unlikely that the presenter and Muraev did not know that this was false, and that Afanasyev had retracted his testimony against Sentsov and spoken of torture back on 31 July 2015. This was at a time when he was totally at the mercy of the FSB and Russian prison service, and the Memorial Human Rights Centre, in declaring him a political prisoner, specifically warned that he could now face reprisals for his courage.
Hala Sklyaryevska from Detector Media has now probed even further and found that it was, in fact, Muraev’s TV News One that first began pushing the Afanasyev interrogation and the idea that there could be different points of view about the Sentsov case. She believes that it was on Muraev’s channel that the supposed story around Afanasyev’s interrogation was pushed more systematically, with the channel including interviews with both Olha and Anatoly Shariy, as well as the former Head of Viktor Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration.
Classic disinformation tactics were used, with those interviewed, for example, focusing on the authenticity of the Afanasyev protocols in order to blur the key point about when Afanasyev had been interrogated and his later retraction of the evidence.
In expressing his disgust at Muraev’s comments, Refat Chubarov, Head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people and MP, noted that Muraev “was one of the first Ukrainian politicians who openly supported Russia’s occupation of Crimea”. The individuals interviewed on News One, especially the Shariys, can also often be heard promoting views close to those expressed by the Kremlin. The motives that prompted Channel 112 are less clear, however it is difficult to disagree with Kopytko’s assessment of their involvement. The ultimate aim of the deliberate disinformation was to suggest that Afanasyev had not lied back in May 2014, but later, when he retracted the testimony, saying that he had told lies about Sentsov’s role under torture. This is a slanderous attack on Sentsov, and one that is particularly low since he is not able, from prison, to sue them for defamation. There were earlier smear campaigns in Russian media and it is galling that this one should have originated in Ukraine.
It is possible that similar attempts will be made to discredit Sentsov in the West, and it is worth being prepared.
The Kremlin and its helpers use the sheer weight of information about the arrests in May 2014 of Sentsov and the three other opponents of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and about the so-called ‘trial’ of Sentsov and Kolchenko to imply an element of doubt or ambiguity that does not exist.
As mentioned, there was no hard evidence of Sentsov’s involvement in anything. There was only the testimony of two men, one of whom refused to testify in court where he would face cross-examination, and the other risked reprisals by retracting his testimony in court. Afanasyev’s account of the torture he was subjected to corresponded with those of both Sentsov and Kolchenko.
Sentsov reported from the beginning that the FSB both tortured him and threatened that if he did not provide the ‘testimony’ demanded, they would designate him the mastermind of the supposed ‘plot’ and he would get 20 years.
This is exactly what happened. Sentsov and Kolchenko were sentenced on August 25, 2015, with Sentsov convicted of ‘organizing a terrorist organisation’ (Article 205.4 § 1 of the Russian Criminal Code), and two episodes treated as ‘terrorist acts committed by an organized group’ (Article 205 § 2a.).
There was never any proof that a terrorist organization had existed, nor of any plans to commit the grandiose attacks on Crimean infrastructure which the FSB claimed on May 30, 2014.
The grandiose claims were quietly forgotten before the trial, and only two Molotov cocktail attacks at night on the empty offices of two pro-Russian organizations were presented as ‘terrorist acts’. Those two incidents are undisputed, but they had nothing to do with Sentsov. Important to note that similar protest acts in Russia are treated as hooliganism or vandalism, and incur, at most, a suspended sentence.
There is quite simply no possibility that the ‘judges’ who sentenced Sentsov to 20 years, Kolchenko to 10 believed that the men were guilty of ‘terrorism’ charges.
For more details and also addresses for letters to Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko, see: Sentsov’s life on the line in defence of all Russia’s Ukrainian political prisoners means no World Cup as usual