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Russian secret trial to convict opponents of Crimean annexation
More details have emerged of the secrecy behind the separate and closed trial of Gennady Afanasyev whose testimony is probably the only ‘evidence’ in the ‘Crimean terrorist plot’ charges against four opponents of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, including renowned film director Oleg Sentsov and left-wing activist Oleksandr Kolchenko. Information about his conviction and sentencing to 7 years imprisonment and a further 1.5 years restriction of liberty coincided with the court hearings into Kolchenko and Sentsov’s detention. Both hearings ended with the detention being extended until April.
As reported, it was the investigator at the hearing on Kolchenko’s detention who first revealed that Afanasyev’s case was being heard in separate proceedings, and that he had been sentenced to 7 years. The verdict had been passed four days earlier by the Moscow City Court in a trial held behind closed doors. The very fact that his case was already at ‘trial’ stage had not been revealed, meaning that the lawyers representing Sentsov and Kolchenko had no opportunity to cross examine the person whose testimony (together with that of Oleksy Chirny) forms the only basis for the charges against their clients.
Kolchenko and Sentsov’s lawyers believe that Afanasyev made a deal with the investigators, giving false testimony against the others in exchange for the minimum sentence envisaged for ‘terrorism’. This corresponds to the account given by Sentsov who, together with Kolchenko, has repeatedly asserted that he was subjected to torture and pressure while in detention in Simferopol. The 38-year-old film director and solo parent says that the investigators tried to get him to make false assertions about EuroMaidan which he actively supported and the new Kyiv administration. He was told that if he did not, he would face even more serious charges. He refused and is now charged with being the ‘mastermind’ of a Right Sector ‘plot’.
Questionable secrecy over dubious charges
There was secrecy over the arrests and initial detention of all four men, with access even to lawyers being initially denied. The first public statement from Russia’s FSB came on May 30, after the men had been taken to Moscow. The alleged terrorist acts in that statement do not correspond with those which Afanasyev has been convicted of. This, and the fact that there is no hard evidence, only confessions, to back the claim that Sentsov ‘masterminded’ the alleged ‘plot’, make it especially suspicious that the other defendants’ lawyers were not informed of the proceedings and allowed to attend.
It is unclear whether there was an actual trial as such, and who was present at the pronouncement of sentence on Dec 17. The human rights website Mediazona first reported the result on Dec 25, but had almost certainly only been present at the hearing on Kolchenko’s detention. Their report repeated the FSB May 30 statement claiming that Afanasyev was part of a group led by Oleg Sentsov which in April 2014, acting on the instructions of the Ukrainian Right Sector, created a ‘diversionary-terrorist group’ in Simferopol. According to this version, Afanasyev, Chirny and Kolchenko, as well as “other unidentified individuals” had, on Sentsov’s instructions, carried out arson attacks on buildings of the Russian Community of the Crimea on April 14 and the local branch of the United Russia party on April 18. In both cases it was earlier reported that a Molotov cocktail had been thrown, with the Russian Community having a door slightly burned, and United Russia – a window damaged.
The prosecution also asserts that, again following Sentsov’s instructions, Chirny and Afanasyev obtained homemade explosive devices which were supposed to be used for two terrorist acts on May 9 – blowing up the monument to Lenin at the railway square in Simferopol and the Eternal Flame memorial. It claims that the explosions did not happen since both men were arrested first. While Afanasyev does appear to have been detained before Sentsov who was arrested late on May 10, the first mention of Oleksy Chirny came considerably later in May. Chirny is the least known of any of the four men, but significantly the only one whose social network page indicated a moderate degree of support for the far-right national ‘Right Sector’.
The first mention of ‘Right Sector’ came in the FSB statement on May 30. That version claimed that the main aim of what they termed a ‘Right Sector diversionary terrorist group’ 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.
The FSB claim to have carried out searches and found: “explosive devices, firearms; ammunition; canisters with inflammatory substances; construction helmets (similar ones were used during the disturbances on ‘Maidan’; respirators; gas masks; aerosol paint cans; nationalist symbols, etc.”
Once again, if these ‘were found’, it must have been at the homes of the two men who have given ‘confessions’, since nothing of the kind appears to have been found at either Sentsov or Kolchenko’s homes. All the more reason for the latter’s lawyers to have been present at Afanasyev’s trial and allowed to ask questions.
The secrecy does not, unfortunately, end there. All lawyers have been forced to sign a commitment that they will not reveal any details of the case. There are undoubtedly cases where details about a terrorist act or conspiracy may be concealed to protect informants or for other reasons. The present case, however, is gravely flawed and there are enough disturbing elements to justify the suspicion that the efforts underway are aimed at hiding the damning lack of any substance to the charges facing Sentsov and Kolchenko.
Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko - FSB repression
Miscast or secret players
All four defendants in this case were known to have opposed Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. Aside from mention of Right Sector on Chirny’s social network page, there was nothing to link any of the men with that nationalist party.
It is perhaps worth noting that five days before the FSB statement, the Right Sector presidential candidate received an abysmally low result (0.9%) in the May 25 presidential elections. This was so out of sync with the Kremlin’s demonization of Right Sector as supposed main player in a ‘Kyiv junta’ that the pro-Kremlin Pyervy Kanal resorted to a fake ‘Right Sector victory’.
Civic activists in the Crimea knew Afanasyev as a photographer (who had first studied law at the Tavriya National University) and opponent of Russia’s invasion and annexation. They treat claims of any Right Sector involvement with scepticism.
Allegations of Sentsov and Kolchenko’s links with Right Sector have been denied by both men. The miscasting seems obvious in both cases. Oleg Sentsov is raising two young children, one with autism, by himself making the suggestion that the FSB could have found the alleged items in his home preposterous. There is no material or witness evidence to a link with Right Sector either. Oleksandr Kolchenko, who recently turned 25 in detention, is a left-wing anarchist who has been in conflict with nationalists in the past, and is seriously miscast as a Right Sector ‘terrorist’.
The charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years, and Kolchenko’s lawyer Svetlana Sidorkina believes that this means that Afanasyev did indeed receive a minimum sentence. She says that his sentence is likely to be used as grounds for seeking the conviction of the others, and probably much stiffer sentences for the two men who maintain their innocence.
She is adamant that the prosecution has acted in breach of Russian legislation in the trial of Afanasyev. “Our defendants did not have the chance to put questions to Afanasyev. The testimony which he has given directly concerns both Kolchenko and Sentsov, and we have effectively been denied fully-fledged defence of any clients. The Afanasyev case was considered without studying the document and evidence with this placing in doubt the rulings passed”, she insists.
The above-mentioned FSB statement coincided with a Pyervy Kanal news report repeating the prosecution line and showing ‘confessions’ by both Afanasyev and Chirny. Given the fact that only Afanasyev has been sentenced, it is worth noting a worrying report from the Open Dialogue Foundation which has been closely following the case. In August Open Dialogue activists reported that Chirny was in a pre-suicidal state which they believed to have been brought about by drugs he was ‘treated’ with in the Serbsky Institute. That institute earned notoriety during the 1970s and later for its use of punitive psychiatry.
Petro Okhotin from the NGO explained that the FSB investigators were doing their utmost to separate Sentsov and Kolchenko and Afanasyev and Chirny. They had experienced enormous difficulty in even tracking down Chirny. When their delegation arrived at the Serbsky Institute, they were told that he had been moved to the Lefortovo prison. Then a day later they learned that he was in the Butyrka pre-trial detention centre in a severe pre-suicidal state. Okhotin warned that Chirny might be facing torture and / or being fed tranquillizers to get him to give testimony against the other defendants.
Since Afanasyev was sentenced alone, it is possible that Chirny has since retracted his testimony. He had earlier been reported to have written a letter asking for the Ukrainian consul to visit him. Chirny is the only one of the four who had managed to formally declare his rejection of Russian citizenship before being arrested, and the Russian authorities have not attempted, as they have with the others, to claim that the others had ‘automatically’ become Russian nationals. Both Kolchenko and Sentsov have vehemently objected to this and are adamant that they remain Ukrainian citizens.
Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko are facing 20-year sentences in a case where the words ‘if convicted’ seem especially inappropriate. Both men have been declared political prisoners by the authoritative Memorial Human Rights Centre, and demands have already been issued by Amnesty International for their return to the Crimea. The lack of any evidence aside from questionable ‘confessions’ and the secrecy behind Afanasyev’s trial make international attention and pressure on the Russian authorities imperative.