war crimes in Ukraine

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Sentsov thrown into punishment cell & sent to the Far North because of protests demanding his release

Halya Coynash
Ukrainian filmmaker and Kremlin hostage Oleg Sentsov has spent several terms in a punishment cell over recent months, including a two-week punishment as soon as he arrived at the harsh ‘White Bear’ prison colony north of the Arctic Circle. Both the penalties and the transfer to this most isolated of all prisons are linked with the mounting protest in his defence in Yakutia.

Ukrainian filmmaker and Kremlin hostage Oleg Sentsov has spent several terms in a punishment cell over recent months, including a two-week punishment as soon as he arrived at the harsh ‘White Bear’ prison colony north of the Arctic Circle. Both the penalties and the transfer to this most isolated of all prisons are linked with the mounting protest in his defence in Yakutia.

According to Sentsov’s lawyer Dmitry Dinze, the decision to move him was initially taken on July 21, though it was only implemented a month and a half later.  If it was linked with public support for Sentsov, then this would have only been exacerbated by the Pussy Riot protest in August when a huge placard reading ‘Free Sentsov’ was hung from a bridge.  It is likely that the Kremlin is eager to  isolate Sentsov in the run-up to the so-called presidential elections early next year intended to give a democratic veneer to Vladimir Putin’s fourth formal and fifth de facto term as president.

The motives behind the move are confirmation of what Sentsov himself wrote in a letter to Russian human rights activist Zoya Svetova.  He reported that he had been thrown into a punishment cell after an attempt by Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin to telephone him. He stressed, however, that this should not be viewed as grounds 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”.  (Sentsov in a letter dated 27 September, 2017 )

Dinze is clear that Sentsov was punished “specifically because of the active support on all fronts, and protests in his defence in Yaktutia. He was placed in a SHIZO [punishment cell] several times.  When he was released from there the last time, he was given half an hour to gather his possessions and taken by a special convoy.  Along the way, he was held almost everywhere in isolation, and not allowed to speak with others.”.

Dinze describes the new prison as being known for its strict implementation of all rules, with frequent checks, etc, unlike the Yakutsk prison which was less rigorous. 

In addition to other violations of the men’s rights, Russia is flouting a recent European Court of Human Rights judgment by imprisoning Sentsov, civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko and many other Ukrainian political prisoners thousands of kilometres away from their home and families.  Protest might well be ignored, but in Sentsov’s case, he had positively decided not to complain, because at least in the prison in Yakutia, there were no particular excesses or ill-treatment, which is by no means the norm in Russian prisons.

The main work in this prison is linked with the stone industry, however there are also jobs in the library, theatre and local film studio.  Dinze reports that Sentsov rejected an offer of work linked with the theatre or cinema and for the moment is not formally working.  He is, however, continuing to write stories, and film scripts.

The conditions are even more inauspicious for a person accustomed to the Crimean climate than in Yakutia and that was already very bad.  It is still only November, yet the temperature outside, during Dinze’s visit, was minus 16.  It was also a drier climate in Yakutsk, and Sentsov’s rheumatism has flared up after the long journey in unheated vans.  Most worryingly, he has begun complaining of heart problems.  Dinze stresses that at least in this area, the prison administration doesn’t want any trouble and has reacted adequately, ordering a proper medical check.

Sentsov has, however, also lost a huge amount of weight.  Dinze says that in comparison with Yakutia, it’s like seeing two different people. He has been drained by the long and arduous journey, and has no supplies of food items.  Dinze says that the situation with food is OK, in comparison with the other 15 northern prison colonies, but this is likely to be relative. He is allowed only one 20 kilogram parcel once every three months, and, as reported earlier, asks people for this reason not to send other parcels.

The secrecy around Sentsov’s transfer was doubtless deliberate and very brutal.  He has himself told Dinze that at first he believed that he was to be released as part of an exchange.  He has now stopped hoping, though believes that an exchange must happen sooner or later. 

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.

Please write to Oleg Sentsov and to Oleksandr (Sasha) Kolchenko. 

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 is Sasha Kolchenko’s birthday on November 26 – see below for a possible greeting, together, perhaps, with a birthday card.

It would be good to give a return address since they will probably want to reply.

Добрый день,

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 Oleg Sentsov

РФ, 629400 Ямало-Ненецкий автономный округ, город Лабытнанги, улица Северная 33.

Сенцову Олегу Геннадьевичу, 1976 г.р.

[Russian Federation, 629400, Yamalo-Nenetsky autonomous okrug, Labytnangi, Severnaya St, 33

Sentsov, Oleg Gennadievych, b. 1976]

Letters to Oleksandr Kolchenko

Привет и с днём рождения!  Желаю Вам крепкого здоровья, мужества и счастья.  Надеюсь на скорое освобождение. 

Мы о Вас помним.   

(Happy Birthday!  Wishing you health, courage and happiness, and that you will soon be released.  You are not forgotten.  )


РФ,  456612, Челябинская обл., Копейск, ул. Кемеровская, 20.,

Кольченко Александру Олександровичу, 1989 г.р.

[Russian Federation, 456612, Chelyabinsk obl., Kopeisk, Kemerovskaya St, 20

Kolchenko, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich, 1989]

Oleg Sentsov’s  latest letters from prison are translated in full by Voices of Ukraine, for example, here and here.

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