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.

Moscow prohibits picket in support of Oleg Sentsov for 84th day of his hunger strike

Halya Coynash
Despite the immediate danger to Oleg Sentsov’s life, Russia’s reaction so far to calls from all democratic countries to release him has been to lie about Sentsov’s ‘trial’, his citizenship, and to impose repressive measures against those Russians who have come out in the imprisoned filmmaker’s support

The relevant authorities in Moscow have refused to allow a picket calling for the release of Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian filmmaker whom Russia arrested after its annexation of Crimea. The picket was organized by film critic Alexei Medvedev for August 4, when the Kremlin’s most famous Ukrainian hostage will have been on hunger strike for 84 days.  Despite the immediate danger to Sentsov’s life, Russia’s reaction so far to calls from all democratic countries to release him has been to lie about Sentsov’s ‘trial’, his citizenship, and to impose repressive measures against those Russians who have come out in the imprisoned filmmaker’s support. 

On this occasion, Alexei Medvedev reports, the central prefecture in Moscow used a 2012 ban issued by the Basmanny District Court.  Even if that court were not notorious for rubberstamping politically repressive measures, there could be no justification in using a ban imposed on a specific protest against Vladimir Putin’s third ‘presidential election’ six years earlier to prevent a peaceful picket in 2018.  Medvedev has said that they will be appealing the ban. 

Optimism that the decision will be overturned cannot be high, when numerous Russians have been detained over the last two and a half months for trying to hold entirely legal single-person pickets calling for Sentsov’s release.

Dmitry Kalinychev from Nizhny Novgorod was even jailed for 25 days after a single-person picket on 18 June in defence of the over seventy Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia and occupied Crimea, as well as Russian political prisoners.  The excuse this time for the courts to flout Russia’s own legislation was a ban on protests during the World Cup.

Medvedev recently wrote of the “murder which is being committed before our eyes”, and expressed the hope that all those who do not want to be complicit would find the time and place to come out to testify: “I am against this.  It is not in my name”.  This is better than nothing, although he acknowledges that it will not clear their conscience.

“It is enough to come out with a portrait of Oleg and stand in silence. And simply try to feel what he is feeling now, he and his family.”

Oleg Sentsov’s elderly mother learned of the hunger strike which he began on 14 May from Oleg’s cousin, Natalya Kaplan.  She was understandably distressed, fearing that she will never see her son again.  Sentsov’s two children, Alina and Vlad, are in their early teens and have not seen their father since his arrest on 10 May 2014. 

In April 2017, in a letter after receiving the PEN America / Barbey Freedom to Write 2017 Award, Sentsov wrote, perhaps for the first time, about the pain of being separated from his children.  

“It’s very hard to feel like a person when you’ve lost the most important thing to you. The people who are dear to you are not always those that you see every day. But children, even other people’s children, even those that you meet one time, will always be dear to you. And this is why it is so unbearable to hear children’s voices, which sometimes the wind carries in from beyond the fence.<>

The last time I went to Maidan, where people had already begun perishing, my mother said, “Why are you going there? You have two children!” I answered that it was precisely because of that that I was going there—I don’t want them to live in a country of slaves. We won then, but it proved not to be the end. And the struggle continues, but now without me. I’m in prison and like any prisoner it is very difficult for me to answer a simple childish question: “Daddy, when are you coming home?”

After Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Oleg Sentsov played an active role in getting food and other supplies to besieged Ukrainian soldiers and eventually helped to evacuate them before an infinitely stronger Russian invader that Ukraine could not fight alone. 

He and three other opponents of Russia’s annexation: Oleksandr Kolchenko, Gennady Afanasyev and Oleksiy Chyrniy were all seized by the FSB in Simferopol in May 2014.  After being held incommunicado, during which time three of the men report being tortured, the FSB came up with ‘terrorist plot’ charges, based solely on the testimony during that period without lawyers or contact with their families from Afanasyev and Chyrniy.  Afanasyev later in court, during the trial of Sentsov and Kolchenko retracted his testimony, stating clearly that it had been extracted by torture.

Sentsov reported from the beginning that the FSB had both tortured him and threatened that if he did not provide the ‘testimony’ demanded, they would designate him the mastermind of the supposed ‘plot’ and he would get 20 years.

This is exactly what happened.  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.).

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.

The grandiose claims were quietly forgotten before the trial, and only two Molotov cocktail attacks at night on the empty offices of two pro-Russian organizations were presented as ‘terrorist acts’. Those two incidents are undisputed, but they had nothing to do with Sentsov.  Important to note that similar protest acts in Russia are treated as hooliganism or vandalism, and incur, at most, a suspended sentence. 

There is quite simply no possibility that the ‘judges’ who sentenced Sentsov to 20 years, Kolchenko to 10 believed that the men were guilty of ‘terrorism’ charges.

It is just as unlikely that Vladimir Putin believes this lie either, though he continues to repeat it.

Russia is also pushing the extraordinary claim that Sentsov and Kolchenko have dual citizenship.  They initially tried to deny their Ukrainian citizenship altogether, claiming that they had ‘automatically’ become Russian citizens.  When this became entirely untenable, not least because they were on ‘trial’ as Ukrainian citizens, they tried to claim that they hold the citizenship of both countries.  This is a particularly cynical lie that should be challenged publicly by the world leaders who have called for Sentsov’ release, since Russia is citing non-existent Russian citizenship as an excuse for not returning Sentsov and Kolchenko to Ukraine.

Both Sentsov and Kolchenko were recognized as political prisoners by the Memorial Human Rights Centre long before the end of the ‘trial’, and the men’s release has been demanded by all international bodies, democratic governments, international human rights organizations and world-renowned filmmakers, artists and others.

More details and addresses for letters to Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko can be found here.


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