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13.02.2019 | Halya Coynash

Russia refuses to allow Ukrainian political prisoner Kolchenko to complete his studies

Recent photo from the Russian prison Photo Tatyana Shchur
   

It is almost five years since Oleksandr Kolchenko was arrested in occupied Crimea, together with Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, illegally taken to Russia and sentenced to 10 years on fictitious charges.  He remains fully enrolled in his university and the staff are willing to let him finish his degree by correspondence.  Russia, however, is refusing to allow this and repeating its shocking claim that Kolchenko has ‘automatically’ become a Russian citizen and cannot study in a Ukrainian university.

Volodymyr Kazarin, Dean of the Tavrida National Vernadsky University explains that both he and Ukraine’s Human Rights Ombudsperson have made several approaches to the Russian prison service over the last year and a half, with all rejected.  There is no reason at all why a Ukrainian should not be able to study by correspondence from a Russian prison, and Kazarin is convinced that there has been an order from above that Kolchenko should have no contact with Ukraine.

Kolchenko is not from an affluent family and was working and studying at the same time, as well as being an environmental activist.  He was in his second year at TNU when arrested.  His university, which was forced to relocate to Kyiv, formally reinstated him in April 2017, with the students and lecturers simultaneously beginning a campaign, demanding his release and calling on students from other Ukrainian, US and European universities to support their action. 

Kazarin explains that the university was willing to send Kolchenko a laptop, but the prison service blocked this and his studies.

Russia’s attempts to foist its citizenship on both Kolchenko and Sentsov have been widely condemned as totally illegal.  Since Russia is unable to concoct any proof of either man having taken on Russian citizenship voluntarily, they have tried to claim that they ‘automatically’ became Russian citizens. 

A month after illegally annexing Crimea, Russia demanded that Crimeans formally register their rejection of Russian citizenship.  As well as minimal information being provided, there was a very limited timeframe and only three offices throughout Crimea where you could do this.  It is quite probable in any case that the men would have, on principle, refused to formally apply to keep the Ukrainian citizenship which was theirs by right. 

Both Kolchenko and Sentsov objected vehemently when Russia began claiming the men to be its citizens. With the prosecutor initially denying Kolchenko’s Ukrainian citizenship altogether, his lawyer lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights. 

It is frustrating that ECHR is dragging its heals on all cases involving Crimean victims of persecution, since there can be no question that this forced ‘Russification’ is anything but a flagrant violation of the men’s rights (more details here).

A member of the Ural Human Rights Group visited Kolchenko at the beginning of February and reported that he is looking painfully thin, pale and very tense.  He had recently been placed in a punishment cell where the conditions are particularly bad.  The pretext was that he had been moving around the prison colony without permission.  As human rights activist Tatyana Shchur notes, all prisoner do this, but on certain days (and this was on the eve of Orthodox Christmas), certain prisoners get singled out and punished.

Kolchenko, Sentsov Gennady Afanasyev and Oleksiy Chirniy were arrested in May 2014.  They were held incommunicado, then taken illegally to Moscow and only allowed to see lawyers after several weeks, almost certainly to hide the signs of torture. 

The FSB asserted on 30 May 2014 that the four men were members of a ‘Right Sector ‘terrorist’ plot who had been planning terrorist attacks on vital parts of Crimea’s infrastructure. It claimed, for example, that they were planning to blow up railway bridges, although there are none in Crimea. 

Kolchenko was convicted on August 25, 2015 of ‘involvement in a terrorist organisation (Article 205.4 § 2 of the Russian Criminal Code) and of taking part in a firebomb attack on the offices of the United Russia party in Simferopol (Article 205 § 2a) .

Kolchenko never denied the firebomb incident during which he had held guard on the street while a Molotov cocktail was thrown into a deserted office during the night.   Identical attacks in Russia, however, are treated as hooliganism, and normally get suspended sentences.

There was no evidence of ‘terrorism’ at all.

The prosecution’s case was based solely on confessions obtained from Afanasyev and Chirniy while they were held incommunicado and without lawyers.

Kolchenko and Sentsov have consistently denied the terrorism charges and spoken of being tortured to force confessions.  So too did Afanasyev when he stood up at the trial of Sentsov and Kolchenko and stated that all previous testimony had been untrue and extracted through torture.

The FSB had imposed a regime of virtually total secrecy until the trial of Kolchenko and Sentsov began in the summer of 2015.  It became clear from Day 1 that the prosecution had no real evidence and on 5 August 2015, the Memorial Human Rights Centre declared both Kolchenko and Sentsov political prisoners.

Everything about the ‘trial’ was absurd.  Kolchenko is a committed left-wing activist, and it was inconceivable that he would have had anything to do with a right-wing nationalist ‘Right Sector’ plot.  There was also nothing to suggest any presence of Right Sector in Crimea at all.

Despite the lack of any evidence, the refusal by Chyrniy to give testimony in court and Afanasyev’s retraction of his testimony, ‘judges’ Sergei Arkadyevich Mikhailyuk, Viacheslav Alexeevich  Korsakov and Edward Vasilyevich Korobenko from the Rostov Military Court sentenced Sentsov to 20 years in a maximum security prison and Kolchenko to 10. 

Please write to Oleksandr (Sasha) Kolchenko and Oleg Sentsov!

Avoid politics or discussion of their cases.  The letters should not weigh more than 100 g and it would be good to give a return address since they will probably want to reply.

Only letters in Russian are accepted unfortunately.  If this is a problem, please just cut and paste the following, perhaps with a nice photo. 

Добрый день,

Желаю Вам здоровья, мужества и терпения, надеюсь на скорое освобождение.

Мы о Вас помним.   

[Hello, I wish you good health, courage and patience and hope that you will soon be released.  You are not forgotten.  

Just cut and paste the addresses with the men’s name and year of birth .

Letters to Oleksandr Kolchenko

РФ,  456612, Челябинская обл., Копейск, ул. Кемеровская, 20.,

Кольченко Александру Олександровичу, 1989 г.р.

[Russian Federation, 456612, Chelyabinsk obl., Kopeisk, Kemerovskaya St, 20

Kolchenko, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich, 1989]

Letters to Oleg Sentsov

РФ, 629400 Ямало-Ненецкий автономный округ, город Лабытнанги, улица Северная 33.

Сенцову Олегу Геннадьевичу, 1976 г.р.

[Russian Federation, 629400, Yamalo-Nenetsky autonomous okrug, Labytnangi, Severnaya St, 33

Sentsov, Oleg Gennadievych, b. 1976]

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