10 years for a Molotov cocktail in protest at Russia’s annexation of Crimea
Oleksandr Kolchenko was in his second year at the Tavrida National University in 2014 when he was arrested in the same politically motivated case as filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and two other opponents of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. His university, now based in Kyiv, has just formally reinstated him, and students and lecturers have begun a campaign demanding his release.
Volodymyr Kazarin, Dean of the University, explains that the students and lecturers are calling on students from other Ukrainian universities to support their action. They have also begun contacting US and European universities in the hope that they will express show solidarity.
Oleksandr Kolchenko is a left-wing civic and environmental activist who was working and studying part-time at the Tavrida National University when Russia invaded and annexed his native Crimea. He was just 24 when arrested, a few days after the arrests of Sentsov, Gennady Afanasyev and Oleksiy Chirniy. The four opponents of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea were held incommunicado, then taken illegally to Moscow and only allowed to see lawyers after several weeks, with the secrecy almost certainly to hide the signs of torture.
On May 30, Russia’s FSB [security service] came up with extraordinary charges, claiming that Sentsov had been the mastermind behind a ‘Right Sector terrorist plot’ and that the other three were involved in and planning acts of terrorism.
This was the first of many cases in occupied Crimea and in Russia where the only ‘evidence’ has been ‘confessions’ obtained while men were held without any access to real lawyers, consul and family. From that trial on, the FSB made virtually no effort to produce a credible indictment. They clearly saw no need when the state-controlled media could be relied upon to unquestioningly repeat and even embellish any story, however absurd, and when the courts were just as ‘reliable’ in providing the sentences demanded.
Kolchenko and Sentsov have from the outset maintained their innocence. Sentsov has described the torture he was subjected to in detail and says that he was told that if he did not provide the testimony demanded, including against Euromaidan and the new government in Kyiv, they would make him the ‘ringleader’ and he would rot in prison. Both men held firm and Sentsov was indeed accused of having masterminded the supposed Right Sector ‘terrorist plot’. Even had there been any evidence of Right Sector activities in Crimea, Kolchenko’s left-wing views would have made any cooperation with it inconceivable.
Afanasyev and Chirniy initially gave ‘confessions’ under torture, and agreed to ‘cooperate’ with the investigators. Both received minimum 7-year sentences in separate trials.
There was enormously secrecy about the case with Sentsov and Kolchenko’s lawyers forced to sign agreements not to divulge any information.
It became clear from the first day of the trial that the entire case was based on the ‘confessions’ provided by Chirniy and Afanasyev.
On July 31 at the trial of Sentsov and Kolchenko, Afanasyev unexpectedly retracted all testimony, stating then and later that it had been tortured out of him. Chirniy only refused to give testimony in court, but had before told the Ukrainian consul that he had been ill-treated.
There was literally no evidence against Oleg Sentsov at all. Kolchenko had taken part in one act of protest in April 2014. A Molotov cocktail was thrown at the entrance of an organization which had played a major and dodgy role in supporting Russia’s invasion. They were thrown at night when nobody would be hurt. Afanasyev and Chirniy had taken part in two such protests.
The military court in Rostov ignored the lack of any evidence, the absurdity of the testimony provided by prosecution ‘witnesses’ and of the FSB story which had Kolchenko, a left-wing anarchist taking part in a far-right ‘terrorist plot’. Most importantly, it ignored Afanasyev’s retraction of his testimony and Chirniy’s refusal to testify in court.
Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years’ maximum security prison and Kolchenko to 10. The longer sentences were effectively for their courage, and in court both men joined arms and sang the Ukrainian national anthem as the sentence was being read out.
Both men are, in breach of Russian law, being held thousands of kilometres from their home and families. Russia is also trying to claim that the men ‘automatically’ became Russian citizens, although they were tried as Ukrainian citizens.
None of the allegations of torture have ever been properly investigated.
Sentsov and Kolchenko first, and then Afanasyev also, have been recognized as political prisoners by the authoritative Memorial Human Rights Centre. Their report noted that there was nothing incriminating against Sentsov at all, and that the one act that Kolchenko admitted to, in no way constituted an act of terrorism. Kolchenko had taken part, by watching the streets, in the firebombing of the office of the United Russia party on April 18, 2014. His role was to watch the street while Chirniy and another person – Nikita Borkin – threw the firebomb. Memorial agrees with the defence that this act had nothing to do with terrorism, and pointed out that there had been a number of arson attacks on United Russia offices in various parts of Russia over recent years. They had been prosecuted as deliberate destruction of property or hooliganism, with even the maximum sentences under those articles 3 or 4 times less than for terrorism.
The ‘trial’ was condemned as “absolutely Stalinist” . Immediately after the sentences, prominent Russian human rights defenders, writers, political analysts and others demanded that the sentences against Sentsov and Kolchenko be revoked, and warned that “The country has again taken the road of political repression”.
“The fabricated trial of Sentsov and Kolchenko on charges of terrorism which ended in a monstrous sentence can only be compared to the political trials of the Soviet era. This trial was open and all the circumstances are known to the public. There was no crime, as in, no acts of terrorism. An arson attack on a door, the only specific action which the defendants were charged with (without sufficient grounds and proof) would, according to Russian legislation, be at very most treated as hooliganism. The rights of all the defendants were seriously violated, with this even including beating and torture during and following their arrest. The main witness for the prosecution stated in court that he had been tortured and retracted his testimony given under torture.
What is this, if not ideologically motivated state terror? The aim is to intimidate and suppress any peaceful resistance in Crimea from those who regard themselves as citizens of Ukraine and oppose Russia’s annexation of Crimea.”,
PLEASE contact universities, representatives of the arts and politicians in your country and ask them to demand that Russia release Oleksandr Kolchenko and Oleg Sentsov.
And WRITE LETTERS OR POSTCARDS to Oleg and Oleksandr (Sasha)! Even just a word or two will send an important message to them, and to the Kremlin, that they are not forgotten. The letters should not weigh more than 100 g. and must, unfortunately, be in Russian. If this is a problem, please just cut and paste the following, perhaps with a nice photo.
It would be good to give a return address since they will probably want to reply.
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
(please enclose light-weight paper and an envelope, so that he can reply)
Россия 456612, Челябинская обл., Копейск, ул. Кемеровская, 20.,
Кольченко Александру Олександровичу, 1989 г.р.
Letters to Oleg Sentsov
677004, Республика Саха (Якутия), г. Якутск, ул. Очиченко, 25, ФКУ ИК-1
Сенцову Олегу Геннадьевичу, 1976 г.р.