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.

Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov faces reprisals and transfer to notorious prison over international protest.

Halya Coynash

Prevented by international scrutiny from using physical force against Ukrainian filmmaker and Kremlin hostage, Oleg Sentsov, Russia is resorting to other forms of reprisals.  It seems likely that the long and arduous transfer to a notorious prison in Kharp in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug is one such method, as is the failure to hand Sentsov the very many letters he is sent from all over the world.

Russian human rights defender Zoya Svetova has published a letter Sentsov wrote to her on September 17, from the Tyumen SIZO [remand prison].  As reported, Sentsov was first taken, without any explanation, from the Yakutia prison where he had been held, at the beginning of September.  The process of transfer is always gruelling and dangerous, since family and lawyers have no information about the person’s whereabouts and cannot intervene if ill-treatment is suspected.

Sentsov’s letter makes it clear that the prison authorities has prevented him from receiving letters for months at a time.  Svetova points out that it can only be guessed whether all letters written by Sentsov have been sent to their addressees.

It has been known for some time that Sentsov was not being given most of the letters sent from all over the world.  It appears to be only Sentsov, and not Moscow’s other Ukrainian political prisoners who are treated in this fashion. 

The fact that not all letters get through does not negate the enormous importance of writing.  Firstly, the letters may, as in this case, suddenly be delivered in bulk, and secondly, any such letter sends a vital message to Moscow that it is being watched. For the moment, however, Sentsov writes that there is no sense writing to him until he reaches the final destination planned.  The same is not true of Oleksandr Kolchenko, the civic activist jailed with Sentsov and letters to him are badly needed.

Sentsov knows that his letters are subject to censorship, and is also clearly not a person prone to bemoaning his fate.  He says openly, however, that he “expects nothing good of this work trip”, as he puts it, and mentions also that the travel through the Irkutsk and Omsk regions has given him direct understanding of how bad things can be, not just through the tales told.

“Nobody touches me physically, of course, but you understand very well that this system can punish in perverted fashion and torture, without using brute force.

But never mind, it will all be good!»

He has long not written, he explains, because of his mood.  He is not succumbing to depression or gloom, he stresses, but he is not a sociable person, and “there are times when I minimize external contact.”  This has, admittedly been helped along by the prison authorities with their refusal to hand over letters.

He has held on to all old letters, which he has to take with him on this cruelly arduous series of transfers.

One thing he does ask is that people do not send parcels, since he is allowed only one every three months, and he needs to ask his cousin and others to spend specific, urgently needed, items.

The punishment for international attention and consequences is evident.  After Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin tried to telephone Sentsov, the latter was placed in a punishment cell.  Sentsov clearly believes that his being moved is linked with the Pussy Riot protest in Yakutia in early August.

This is not, he stresses, a reason to do nothing. “You at liberty can do whatever you consider necessary in my defence or that of other prisoners. Just be aware that local law enforcers have their own logic in their heads, and they often react like this”.

He acknowledges that the journey is threatening his health but insists that this is no reason for any public hysteria.  “I am not the only person imprisoned, there are a lot of us, and my circumstances are far from the worst”. 

Sentsov, civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko, Gennady Afanasyev and Oleksiy Chyrniy were seized by the Russian FSB in May 2014.  The four Crimeans were linked only in their shared opposition to Russia’s invasion and occupation of Crimea. 

Russia claims that Sentsov was arrested on May 11, which clashes with Sentsov’s own testimony and the first reports of his arrest .  The hours in question are critical since Sentsov has given a consistent account of the torture he was subjected to during that period.

All four men were held incommunicado for up to three weeks, first in Simferopol (Crimea), then in Moscow, before being shown on Russian TV at the end of May.

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.

Sentsov and Kolchenko were sentenced on August 25, 2015, with Sentsov convicted of ‘organizing a terrorist organisation’ (Article 205.4 § 1 of the Russian Criminal Code), and two episodes treated as ‘terrorist acts committed by an organized group’  (Article 205 § 2a).  Other articles of the criminal code were added, presumably to justify the huge 20-year sentence, but these were the main ones.

There was literally no evidence of terrorism against any of the men.  There was never any proof that a terrorist organization had existed, nor of any plans to commit the grandiose attacks on Crimean infrastructure which the FSB claimed on May 30, 2014.

As has repeatedly proven the case, the FSB’s claims have been largely for the Russian state propaganda machine and then quietly forgotten.  By the trials of Sentsov and Kolchenko only two Molotov cocktail attacks at night on the empty offices of two pro-Russian organizations were presented as ‘terrorist acts’. 

The incidents are undisputed, but there is no evidence that Sentsov even knew about either of them.  Similar protest acts in Russia are treated as hooliganism or vandalism, and incur, at most, a suspended sentence. 

The four men were denied any contact with lawyers or their families for nearly three weeks. Sentsov and Kolchenko remained adamant from the start that they were innocent and Sentsov, in particular, has given a detailed account of the torture methods used, and the threat that if he didn’t ‘confess’, he would be made the ‘mastermind’ of a terrorist plot and get 20 years. 

On August 25, 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years, as the FSB had threatened, on the basis solely of two men’s testimony, obtained while the men were held incommunicado and without lawyers.  One of the two (Gennady Afanasyev) stood up in court, at great risk to himself, and retracted all testimony, saying it had been extracted through torture.  Chyrniy refused to testify in court, meaning he could not be questioned.

The FSB had imposed a regime of virtually total secrecy until the trial of Sentsov and Kolchenko 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 Sentsov and Kolchenko political prisoners.  It later made the same statement about Afanasyev (who has since been returned to Ukraine as part of an exchange, on health grounds).

Despite the lack of any evidence, the refusal by Chirniy to give testimony in court and Afanasyev’s retraction of his testimony, the Rostov Military Court sentenced Sentsov to 20 years in a maximum security prison and Kolchenko to 10. 

Russia is also claiming that Sentsov and Kolchenko ‘automatically’ became Russian citizens, and appears to now be using this same illegal means of depriving the men of their rights as Ukrainian citizens in the case of Chyrniy.

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