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Russia hurls petulant lies as Kremlin hostage Oleg Sentsov awarded Sakharov Prize

Halya Coynash
Russia’s ‘terrorist’ narrative about Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov took another blow on 25 October when the Kremlin’s most famous political prisoner was awarded the EU’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Russia’s ‘terrorist’ narrative about Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov took another blow on 25 October when the Kremlin’s most famous political prisoner was awarded the EU’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.  It was, moreover, a blow that could not be concealed from the population, as the Soviet regime had once managed to censor out any mention of its persecution of Andrei Sakharov and other dissidents.  Therefore, while a few Russian and Russian-controlled Crimean media said nothing at all, others set about distorting information about the award and interweaving this with the standard lies about Sentsov’s ‘conviction’ and his citizenship. 

The prize could not have been more deserved.  Oleg Sentsov, civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko and two other Ukrainians (Gennady Afanasyev and Oleksiy Chyrniy) had been seized by the FSB in May 2014 because of their opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  Sentsov received a horrifically long 20-year sentence as the FSB had threatened, because he did not give in and give false testimony, and he demonstrated the same courage throughout his trial, and over the months of his recent hunger strike. 

In announcing the prize, the European Parliament’s President AntonioTajani said: "Through his courage and determination, by putting his life in danger, the film maker Oleg Sentsov has become a symbol of the struggle for the release of political prisoners held in Russia and around the world.”
"By awarding him the Sakharov Prize, the European Parliament is expressing its solidarity with him and his cause. We ask that he be released immediately. His struggle reminds us that it is our duty to defend human rights everywhere in the world and in all circumstances."

The message could not have been clearer, or more uncomfortable for the current regime in Russia, so it was no surprise that the EP President’s words were omitted altogether or heavily edited in Russian media reports and in the commentary from Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, other Russian officials and politicians. 

Zakharova is accustomed to lying, although on this occasion she did it particularly ineptly.  Calling the prize “absolutely politicized”, she claimed to have no idea what grounds had been given for it, despite these having been spelled out above.  It then got even sillier with her asking rhetorically who had seen Sentsov’s films, and then asking why he had been awarded and not former political prisoner Nadiya Savchenko. 

While Zakharova seemed strangely unprepared given that the award was not particularly unexpected (with Sentsov one of three nominees), the Russian propaganda media coordinated their presentation a bit more cleverly.  Emphasis was placed on the fact that Sentsov had been “convicted of terrorism” or of “planning terrorism”, with the government-owned RIA Novosti claiming falsely that “Sentsov was detained by the Russian FSB among members of a ‘Right Sector’ sabotage group planning acts of terrorism in Yalta, Simferopol and Sevastopol.”

The only ‘proof’ ever provided of links with the Ukrainian right-wing and nationalist ‘Right Sector’ was a scarf in its colours found in the room of Oleksiy Chyrniy and the FSB’s original claims of grandiose plans to blow up infrastructure were shelved long before the ‘trial’ began in 2015.  It was the lack of any evidence at all to substantiate terrorism charges that prompted the Memorial Human Rights Centre to declare Sentsov and Kolchenko political prisoners within days of the trial beginning. 

The TASS news agency was much more honest in reporting, albeit in exaggerated terms, what the ‘terrorism’ charges amounted to, namely two Molotov cocktail attacks on the (empty) offices of two pro-Russian organizations.  Such attacks in Russia are qualified as hooliganism and those found guilty of them receive, at most, a suspended sentence. 

In this case they were called ‘terrorism’, and the one person, Sentsov, who had not taken part in any of them, was labelled the ‘mastermind’ and sentenced to 20 years in a maximum security prison. 

The calculation in all of this is clearly to use the word ‘terrorism’ so often that people will hear only the word, and not look too closely.  President Putin has been pushing this line since he was first challenged over Sentsov’s arrest, and it may be no accident that at the same time that the prize was being announced, Putin was publicly asserting that the FSB had ‘averted 15 terrorist acts this year”.   The Kremlin’s excuse for invading and annexing Crimea was that it needed to ‘protect’ the Russian and Russian-speaking population.  When lies are based on a non-existent threat, you must either eventually acknowledge that they were lies, or ‘create’ the threat, by arresting people and torturing ‘confessions’ out of them, as well as by calling acts of protest against the invading power and its helpers ‘terrorism’. 

This mendacious abuse of the term ‘terrorism’ has become standard from Putin, and it was typical that the Vice Speaker of the State Duma Pyotr Tolstoy should have followed suit.  He asserted that Russia and Europe are ever further apart in their assessment of events and that “the awarding of a prize to a person convicted of planning a terrorist attack is the final step in demonstrative disregard for generally accepted norms and laws”. 

The rhetoric is good, but there was no terrorism, and it is particularly shocking that Alexander Brod, a member of Putin’s Human Rights Council, should have not only condemned the award as an example of political intrigue, but also cited the ‘serious’ charges as reason for not awarding it to Sentsov. 

The European Parliament nominated and awarded the Sakharov Prize to Sentsov as a Ukrainian illegally imprisoned in Russia.  It was noticeable that several Russian propaganda media used the same formulation regarding Sentsov’s citizenship, stating that “Ukraine considers him to be a Ukrainian citizen”. 

Ukraine knows him to be Ukrainian and only Ukrainian.  Sentsov has never accepted Russian citizenship and has spoken out in ‘court’ against any plans to treat him like a serf to be transferred together with the property.  Russia’s attempt to claim that he ‘automatically’ became Russian and to deny his Ukrainian citizenship has also been internationally condemned. This is no small issue as Russia is using the claims as excuse for denying Sentsov his rights under international law, including the right to consular visits and care. 

None of the lies are new, though they began being more assiduously pushed this May when Sentsov began his hunger strike, demanding the release of all Russia’s Ukrainian political prisoners.  No mention is made in any of the reports of the fact that Sentsov only ended the hunger strike when faced with forced feeding against his express wishes, with this constituting a form of torture.

Russia has no other justification for holding Sentsov, Kolchenko and other Ukrainians prisoner, and can only rehash the old narrative.  How discredited and ineffectual such lies are was made abundantly clear on Wednesday with the awarding to Oleg Sentsov of the Sakharov Prize. 

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