war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Oleg Sentsov’s Final Statement: ’The Greatest Sin Is Cowardice’

In his remarks, he challenged the legitimacy of an occupied Crimea "governed by criminals" and he spurned a path of "cowardice" that might accommodate or excuse Moscow’s actions in Ukraine

Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov stood before a Russian court in Rostov-on-Don on August 19 to offer a defiant closing statement in his trial with a co-defendant for alleged conspiracy to commit terrorism in forcibly annexed Crimea in 2014.

In his remarks, he challenged the legitimacy of an occupied Crimea "governed by criminals" and he spurned a path of "cowardice" that might accommodate or excuse Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

The prosecutors earlier in the day asked for a 23-year jail sentence for Sentsov for allegedly organizing a terrorist group, planning terrorist attacks, and illegally acquiring explosives in early 2014, when Russia controlled the peninsula and helped orchestrate a hasty Crimean referendum on independence from the rest of Ukraine.

The following is a translation of Sentsov’s defence, in which he stressed that "everyone understands that...a court of occupiers by definition cannot be just." It includes a brief exchange when the trial judge cuts off Sentsov, saying that the defendant "does not have the right to talk about just anything."

Oleh Sentsov: I actually still hope this will not be my last word. Like [fellow defendant Oleksandr Kolchenko], I am not going to ask for anything from you -- to expect consideration here, well, everyone understands that. ... A court of occupiers by definition cannot be just. Don’t take it personally, your honour!

I would like to speak about something else. There was a man named Pontius Pilate. After he had sat on the moon for many years, he thought about what he had done. Then, when he was forgiven, he walked along a moonbeam and said to Ha-Notsri (Hebrew name for Jesus of Nazareth): "You know, you were right. The greatest sin on Earth is cowardice." This was written by the great Russian writer [Mikhail] Bulgakov in his novel The Master And Margarita. And I agree with him. Cowardice is the main and the worst sin on Earth. Betrayal is a personal form of cowardice.

A big betrayal sometimes begins with a small act of cowardice. Like when they put a bag over your head and beat you and after half an hour you are ready to renounce all your convictions and accuse yourself of anything, to accuse others, just so they will stop beating you. I don’t know what your convictions are worth if you aren’t ready to suffer for them or even to die.

I am very glad that Gena Afanasev (a witness for the prosecution who renounced his original testimony against Sentsov and said it had been given under torture) was able to overcome his fear. He lost himself, but in the end he understood that there was still a chance. And he took a courageous and righteous step. I was very surprised by this and I am glad for him. 

It isn’t even that it would cause a major scandal or create a problem and we would be acquitted. No,  that couldn’t happen. I am glad for him because he will be able to live the rest of his life and know that he is a human being who did not give in to fear even though they continue to threaten him, to pressure him, to kick him, to threaten him. But he already stepped in that direction, made a proper step, and you can’t make him go back. I am very glad for him.

I have already spent one year in your wonderful country and I have watched your television. The [news] programs Vesti and Vremya are very good shows. All of your propaganda is working excellently. Most of the Russian population believes what they are saying: Putin is great. There are fascists in Ukraine. Russia is never wrong. There are enemies everywhere. This is very good propaganda.

But I also understand that there are people who are smarter -- such as you, for instance, here -- who support the government. You perfectly well understand that there are no fascists in Ukraine. That Crimea was annexed illegally. That your troops are fighting in Donbas. Even I -- sitting here in prison -- know that your troops are fighting in Donbas. Our jails are full of fighters who are sent there -- like heroes -- on your tanks, with your weapons. They are fighting there, thinking that you are waiting for them. [But] they will return, bringing back their weapons, and they will be met at the border and thrown in prison. And they will be surprised: "How can this be? After all, we were feted as heroes for going…" They don’t understand that that train only goes in one direction. Even here in prison they know that.

There is yet another part of the Russian population that knows perfectly well what is going on. That does not believe in the tales of your agitprop. That understands what is happening in the world -- what horrible crimes your leadership is committing."

-- Oleh Sentsov

Here, in prison, I met with a GRU (Russian military intelligence) officer, your officer, or, rather soldier, who is being tried for another crime. He participated in the annexation of Crimea. On March 24 [2014], they arrived by ship in Sevastopol and blockaded Ukrainian military units. As it turned out, he was blockading the very unit that I was supplying and evacuating. It is an interesting thing. He participated, his brigade participated, in the Battle of Ilovaysk, which was destroyed by Russian soldiers.

These are facts that are on the surface. If you don’t hide yourself from them, you can see them. There, for example, stand the troubadours of your regime, and they are not stupid fellows. They know everything as it is, but they continue to lie. Just as you continue your work, finding some sort of rationalization within yourself. Probably, they also rationalize to themselves: "We have to feed our children; we have to do something." But, guys, what is the point of raising another generation of slaves?

But besides all these people, there is yet another part of the Russian population that knows perfectly well what is going on. That does not believe in the tales of your agitprop. That understands what is happening in the world -- what horrible crimes your leadership is committing. But these people are afraid of something. They think that nothing can be changed. That everything will continue as it is. That the system cannot be broken. That they are alone. That there are few of us. That we will all be thrown into prison. That they will kill us, destroy us. And they sit quietly as mice in their holes.

We also had a criminal regime, but we came out against it. They didn’t want to listen to us -- we beat on trash cans. They didn’t want to see us -- we set tires on fire. In the end, we won. The same thing will happen with you, sooner or later. I don’t know what form it will take and I don’t wish to see anyone suffer. I simply wish for you to no longer be governed by criminals.

Judge: That is not within the scope of this proceeding. We are discussing specific questions. According to the law, you do not have the right to talk about just anything.

Sentsov: I am finishing now, your honour!

Judge: I am not interrupting you, but...

Sentsov: I understood that you are not interrupting me. In short, all I can do is wish that this third, informed portion of the Russian population will learn how not to be afraid.

-- Translated by Robert Coalson, RFE/RL

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