war crimes in Ukraine

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Russia’s FSB launches first Crimean show trial

Halya Coynash
Five days after Ukraine’s presidential elections gave the lie to Moscow’s claims of a far right ‘junta’ in which the nationalist Right Sector is lead villain, four Crimean opponents of Russian annexation, one a prominent film director, have been accused of a Right Sector ‘terrorist conspiracy’

37-year-old Oleg Sentsov, renowned Ukrainian film director, solo father of two, EuroMaidan activist and staunch opponent of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea is accused of master-minding an alleged ’Right Sector terrorist’ plot

Five days after Ukraine’s presidential elections gave the lie to Moscow’s claims of a far right ‘junta’ in which the nationalist Right Sector is lead villain, four Crimean opponents of Russian annexation, one a prominent film director, have been accused of a Right Sector ‘terrorist conspiracy’.  Despite an absurd plot and serious miscasting of all suspected conspirators, the first reports on Kremlin-loyal TV channels suggest that a Crimean show trial is being staged. 

On May 30 Russia’s Federal Security Service [FSB] finally revealed details about the charges they plan to bring against four Crimeans, at least three of whom have been active in peaceful protest against the Russian annexation of the Crimea.  It claims that film director Oleg Sentsov; civic activist Alexander Kolchenko; lawyer Gennady Afanasyev and  Alexei Chirny are members of a Right Sector ‘diversionary terrorist group’.  Their main aim, or so the FSB version goes, was to carry out ‘diversionary-terrorist’ acts in Simferopol; Yalta and Sevastopol, and in the last of these to destroy a number of buildings, railway bridges and power lines.

There is no elaboration on the alleged plans to destroy buildings, etc in Sevastopol.  The FSB asserts that the men were planning bomb attacks during the early hours of May 9 [Victory Day] near the Eternal Flame and a Lenin monument in Simferopol.  They are also accused of arson attacks on the offices of the civic organization “Russian Community of the Crimea” on April 14 and the United Russia party offices in Simferopol on April 18.  There were no terrorist acts and the only action known to have even taken place was that on April 18 when one Molotov cocktail was indeed thrown into the United Russia offices. 

The FSB claim that searches carried out in the homes of the suspects found: ‘explosive substances; firearms; ammunitions; canisters with inflammatory liquid; construction masks (similar to those used during the disturbances on Maidan); respirators; gas masks; aerosol cans with paint; nationalist symbols, etc.”

37-year-old Sentsov is raising two young children by himself, making the suggestion that the FSB found such items in his home preposterous. 23-year-old Kolchenko is a left-wing anarchist who has been in conflict with nationalists in the past, and is seriously miscast as a Right Sector ‘terrorist’.  

As mentioned, the FSB state that charges will be laid in the near future.  Why they have not been so already is curious if the ‘confessions’ they claim the suspects to have made are genuine.

The Committee on Aid to Crimean Political Prisoners has called the FSB accusations “absurd and an affront to common sense”. They view the arrests as linked to the men’s peaceful protest against the annexation of the Crimea and aimed at deterring all Crimean residents who oppose “separatists having seized the power on the peninsula”.

Afanasyev, a law graduate working as a photographer, was seized in the afternoon of May 9 on the street in Simferopol and taken to the FSB office.  Sentsov was detained in his own home during the night of May 10-11 ; Kolchenko – again on the street on May 16.  It is not known when Chirny was arrested, but according to journalist Kateryna Sergatskova,  there seems to have been no contact with him since May 27.  Sergatskova cites his VKontakte page which is the only information about the fourth suspect.  This is especially interesting since, judging by that social network page, he is the only one to show any support for Right Sector. Both Sentsov and Afanasyev were active supporters of EuroMaidan.  They and Kolchenko all took part in protests against Russian occupation and none has taken on Russian citizenship.

The FSB report was fairly dry and short on detail. Not so the treatment on Russian TV channels which have once again demonstrated a worrying level of collaboration with the enforcement bodies and little concern for accuracy.  Channel One entitles one report “Right Sector saboteurs’ plans to carry out terrorist acts on Victory Day have been foiled” and claims – in support of this version but contrary to fact - that the men were arrested at the beginning of May. 

Sentsov and Kolchenko deny all charges, however Afanasyev and Chirny are shown ‘confessing’, for example, to having received instructions from Sentsov.  All four men are in Moscow’s Lefortovo remand prison and contact with lawyers has been very difficult.  It seems extremely likely that the two were placed under physical or psychological pressure to give ‘confessions’.

A specific and worrying feature of all the Russian TV reports is the focus on Sentsov whose active participation in the AutoMaidan movement [linked with EuroMaidan] is stressed.

These arrests aroused scepticism from the outset due to the lack of any substantiation for the accusations of terrorism and the involvement of the first three detained in peaceful opposition to the annexation.   The latest developments only confirm these suspicions.  Right Sector has been consistently demonized by the Kremlin and Russian propaganda, and its role, both in the EuroMaidan movement and in the interim administration, wildly exaggerated.  An attempt by the same First Channel to claim that the Right Sector candidate had gained the largest number of votes on May 25 coincided with exit polls suggesting (accurately, as it turned out) that the RS candidate, Dmytro Yarosh had gained less than 1% of the votes.  

The FSB has threatened that more arrests may follow and thus far the whereabouts of three other civic activists from the Crimea remain unknown.  There are serious grounds for believing that these arrests and the disappearances are politically motivated with opponents of Russian rule targeted.  It also seems gallingly clear that in 2014 Russia’s security service, aided and abetted by Kremlin-backed Russian media, are attempting a remake of the Stalinist show trials, with Right Sector and EuroMaidan as key villains. 


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