Sentsov’s life on the line in defence of all Russia’s Ukrainian political prisoners means no World Cup as usual
Oleg Sentsov, world-renowned filmmaker and one of Russia’s first Ukrainian political prisoners has gone on hunger strike, vowing not to end it until Russia frees all its Ukrainian political prisoners. His move comes just a month before the World Cup is due to begin in Russia and the timing is no coincidence. There was every reason for the International Football Federation [FIFA] to have taken the World Cup away from Russia after its unprecedented invasion and annexation of Crimea and aggression against Ukraine. FIFA failed to do so, potentially handing the Kremlin a weighty propaganda coup. Oleg Sentsov, who has spent four years of a 20-year sentence in Russian captivity for peacefully opposing Russia’s invasion of his homeland, has taken the only, and most dangerous, step in his power to change this, and it is vital that his indefinite hunger strike receives maximum attention.
It seems he has been planning this move for the last month and a half, rejecting food parcels and reducing his food intake, and he fully understands the possible consequences. He told his lawyer, Dmitry Dinze: “If I die before or during the World Cup, there will be publicity that can help other political prisoners”.
Sentsov’s formal statement is brief, and reads:
“I, Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian citizen, sentenced illegally by a Russian court and held in a prison colony in Labytnangi, have declared a hunger strike, beginning 14 May 2018. My sole demand is the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners held in the Russian Federation.
Together to the end. Glory to Ukraine!”
Dinze has brought the statement back after visiting Sentsov at the prison colony. According to journalist Anton Naumlyuk, Sentsov has been placed in a separate cell since the beginning of his hunger strike and a doctor is monitoring the situation. He has been warned that if his health deteriorates to a critical level, that they could apply force-feeding. In the event that they try to declare him mentally unfit (this being the widespread practice in the Russian penal system to counter hunger strikes), Sentsov points out that there is a medical assessment in his file which found him mentally fit.
It is four years since Sentsov was arrested in Crimea together with three other opponents of Russia’s invasion and annexation: civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko; Gennady Afanasyev and Oleksiy Chyrniy.
All four men were held incommunicado for up to three weeks, first in Simferopol, then in Moscow, almost certainly to hide the torture marks.
Their case was one of the first of many attempted show trials of Ukrainians, and was clearly aimed at justifying Russia’s invasion and occupation of Crimea by presenting Ukrainians as ‘terrorists’.
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. The FSB clearly coordinated their efforts with the state-controlled media who produced videos showing the ‘confessions’ by two of the men, and treating all four as unquestionably guilty.
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.
There were particularly absurd elements to the FSB ‘plot’ such as the focus on the right-wing and ultra-nationalist ‘Right Sector’. There was nothing to suggest any Right Sector presence in Crimea, nor any involvement by any of the men in it. The charge in the case of Kolchenko was particularly nonsensical since the young man is a committed anarchist with pronounced left-wing views.
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, and none that he was in any way involved. Similar protest acts in Russia are treated as hooliganism or vandalism, and incur, at most, a suspended sentence.
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, Kolchenko to ten years, 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 on 31 July 2015, 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 was later returned to Ukraine as part of an exchange, on health grounds).
Russia has also taken the lawless step of claiming that both men ‘automatically’ became Russian citizens, and is denying them access to the Ukrainian consul and their rights under international law.
The Kremlin has ensured that Sentsov, Kolchenko and other political prisoners are imprisoned beyond the Arctic Circle or in the Far East, and that the Russian population hear either lies from the state-controlled media about supposed ‘terrorists’, or nothing at all about them.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was doubtless hoping that their isolation would minimize attention to them during the FIFA World Cup. Russia’s hosting of this was inexplicably never withdrawn despite its invasion of Crimea, military aggression against Ukraine and multiple human rights abuses.
Oleg Sentsov’s courageous and very dangerous hunger strike should foil those plans and publicity is urgently needed.
There are at least 70 Ukrainians held prisoner on politically motivated charges or for their faith in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea. Details about most of the people whose release Oleg Sentsov (and not he alone) is demanding can be found here.
There is a model letter here to politicians about Sentsov’s case that could be used, or adapted for action aimed at drawing attention to his case and asking politicians and the media to help put pressure on Russia to release him and Kolchenko.
Please write to Oleg and to Oleksandr (Sasha) Kolchenko!
It is best not to mention the hunger strike, their ‘cases’ or politics at all. The letters should not weigh more than 100 g and it would be good to give a return address since they will probably want to reply.
Only letters in Russian are accepted unfortunately. If this is a problem, please just cut and paste the following, perhaps with a nice photo.
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
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]