The ‘bright future’ of Oleg Sentsov

Mike Downey crop.jpg

Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov has been held in pre-trial detention for almost a year on charges of terrorism – most of it in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison.


Mike Downey
17 February 2015

Oleg Sentsov first came to the attention of the international film world when he triumphed with his film Gaamer (Gamer) at the 2012 Rotterdam Film Festival. With the cruelty only hindsight can bring, Gaamer screened in the ‘Bright Future’ section of the festival, which aims to draw attention to idiosyncratic and talented newcomers.

The ‘bright future’ that Sentsov is looking at now involves a 20-year stretch in a Russian prison, condemned as traitor and terrorist. Sentsov was arrested by the Russian security services at home in Simferopol on 11 May, 2014, and brought to Moscow where he is detained and awaiting trial on charges of terrorism. Though Ukrainian, of Crimean origin, the investigating authorities of the Russian Federation do not recognise Sentsov’s Ukrainian citizenship. In line with the March 2014 law on the assimilation of Crimea, Russia required any permanent resident of Crimea who held Ukrainian citizenship to declare their intentions of maintaining Ukrainian citizenship. The deadline for this process was April 18, after which all Ukrainian passport holders who resided in Crimea were deemed Russian citizens.

So Oleg not only languishes in a Russian jail, he languishes there deprived of his rights as a Ukrainian citizen, deprived of visits from diplomats of his country, and categorised as a Russian national who has betrayed his own country.

Right Sector

Sentsov is a Maidan activist who was, according to official documents, arrested on May 11, 2014. He is accused of terrorism and belonging to Right Sector, a Ukrainian far-right nationalist organisation. While this last charge has since been dropped, the allegations are based on ‘confessions’ of two other Crimean activists who are thought to have been tortured in detention along with Sentsov – one of them was even subjected to ‘treatment’ in a mental hospital. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) claims that Sentsov was planning to organise a terrorist attack, and claims that Sentsov has admitted to plotting attacks on railway bridges, power lines and public monuments. 

In July 2014, Sentsov and his lawyer Dmitry Dinze (who represented Pussy Riot at their August 2013 trial) reported the use of torture by the FSB. Dinze and Sentsov alleged that FSB officers held him at his apartment on 10 May where they not only beat him up, but also suffocated him with a plastic bag to the point where he lost consciousness. Along with blows to his back and head, Sentsov’s trousers and underpants were removed and he was threatened with rape with a police baton. This treatment continued for over three hours during which Oleg Sentsov refused to confess. His official arrest is recorded on 11 May.

On 29 September, Sentsov’s trial was delayed by three months in a pre-trial hearing at which he spoke. According to the FSB operative leading the case, there was insufficient time to conduct searches; and Sentsov had actually been involved with additional terrorist activities.

During this hearing, Sentsov claimed that he has never been a member of Right Sector, which rose to the fore during the Maidan protests, or any other extremist group. Indeed, Sentsov stated that he has never planned any attacks in Crimea or elsewhere. He denied all charges and stated that he had been tortured. Sentsov also indicated that there is a risk of foul play: he may wind up dead in prison – an apparent ‘suicide’. Oleg considers himself a citizen of Ukraine (and not Russia), and stated that ‘I am not a slave and cannot be transferred from one landowner to another.’ He expressed his wish to return to his home country, Ukraine. 

‘I am not a slave and cannot be transferred from one landowner to another.’

Legal moves

At the same time, Dinze appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg regarding Sentsov’s arrest, pre-trial detention and ill treatment. Furthermore, Dinze requested an interim measure requesting access to the case file: given the serious charges brought against Oleg, the complete secrecy of the criminal proceedings against him, the fact that he has been ill-treated after his arrest, his arbitrary arrest and transfer to Moscow, and the refusal to allow representatives of the Ukrainian government to visit him, there is a substantial risk of further abuse. In light of this, it was crucial that Sentsov’s lawyers be granted full access to the investigation files and particularly to all documents related to his pre-trial detention, as well as the investigation of his allegations of ill treatment. 

On December 26, 2014, a week after Gennady Afanas'ev, another ‘Ukrainian terrorist’ from Crimea, received a seven-year sentence as part of the same case as Sentsov, the Lefortovo court once again extended the arrest of Oleg Sentsov until 11 April 2015. Clearly, it has been decided that Sentsov is to be made an example of what can be the consequences of brooking the Russian government.

International pressure

My connection with Sentsov goes back to December 2013. I was on the jury of the Tbilisi Film Festival as I was preparing to shoot Lost in Karastan (2014), as well as working with Sentsov’s producer Olga Zhurzhenko on an adaptation of Julian Barnes’ The Porcupine, to be shot partially in Kyiv, after securing funding from the Ukrainian Film Fund. Shortly afterwards, Zhurzhenko and I had managed to raise some further funds in Europe for the production of Sentsov’s second feature Rhino, due to shoot in summer 2014.

It was during the Cannes Film Festival of 2014 that it finally became clear that Oleg was not going to be released by the Russian authorities anytime soon. And so, with my European Film Academy deputy chairman’s hat on, the Academy began a campaign, which continues today: to draw attention to his plight and to raise money for his children and legal costs.

The European Film Academy began a campaign to draw attention to his plight

The initial activities focused on lobbying, alerting the press and contacting people in the Russian government. An illustrious group of European film professionals signed an open letter to Russian president Vladimir Putin, including Agustín Almodóvar, Pedro Almodóvar, Roberto Benigni, Stephen Daldry, myself, Agnieszka Holland, Aki Kaurismäki, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Wojciech Marczewski, Rebecca O’Brien, Daniel Olbrychski, Antonio Saura, Volker Schlöndorff, Jerzy Stuhr, Béla Tarr, Bertrand Tavernier, Andrzej Wajda. Expressing deep concern about Sentsov’s fate, these filmmakers signed the letter calling upon President Putin and the Russian authorities to ensure the safety of Oleg Sentsov. Furthermore, they requested that the authorities make public the whereabouts of Sentsov, to ensure that Sentsov was either charged with a recognisable offence or released, and to instigate a full, prompt and impartial investigation into the apparently arbitrary detention by the FSB. The letter has been answered by the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation stating: ‘Based on the evidence collected, Oleg Sentsov has been accused of committing crimes of a terrorist nature.’ What this evidence consists of, however, remains unclear not only to the general public, but also to Sentsov himself and his lawyers. This situation makes it difficult to prepare any kind of effective defence.

‘Based on the evidence collected, Oleg Sentsov has been accused of committing crimes of a terrorist nature.’

Another response came from the FSB to the effect that ‘the proof received in connection with the investigative proceedings bears evidence of […] O.G. Sentsov’s direct complicity in criminal acts.’ Again, what that proof might be remains unknown. Although, it may be noteworthy that this letter does not mention a ‘terrorist nature’ but only ‘criminal acts’.

Public awareness and international political pressure seem to be the only measures that can help save Oleg Sentsov from being sentenced without a free and fair trial.

Amnesty International has demanded an investigation into the torture of Sentsov. On 24 August 2014, the Independence Day of Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko signed a decree awarding to Sentsov, Bravery Order of the Third Degree. A week of Ukrainian films in support of Sentsov was held all over Ukraine, as well as support screenings in Berlin and other cities. There have been European Parliament resolutions and questions raised with the presidency of the European Commission, as well as parliamentary questions tabled in the House of Commons in the UK. Depositions have been made at the European Court of Human Rights. Readings of Sentsov’s work have taken place in Moscow, and there were screenings of Gamer and other films in support of Oleg. Attendance was low, perhaps due to the thinking in Russia that there are risks in attending such events. Still, people were courageous enough to organise these events.

The conventional thinking is that there is a genuine climate of fear in attending such events.

Even the hope that Sentsov could be released under some kind of prisoner exchange has been thwarted due to the fact that he is considered to be a Russian citizen. Moreover, under the terms of the Minsk Protocol, Senstov cannot be exchanged as a prisoner of war as it defines only individuals captured during fighting as eligible for exchange.

While there have been unconfirmed reports from Moscow that Sentsov has now been accused not only under article 205 of the Criminal Code (‘Terrorist act’), but also Article 222, part 3 (‘illegal acquisition, transfer, sale, storage, transportation or carrying of weapons, explosives and explosive devices’) in February 2015. His lawyers have said that they could not get through to the prosecuting investigator in order to learn the details of the new charges.

Keeping up the pressure

To expect the Russians to relent on the basis of due procedure is a fantasy. We would be naive to think that Sentsov can expect anything but an unfair trial. The only way to help Oleg Sentsov is to continue the campaign of public and international political awareness, in the hope that something sticks. Though Sentsov’s name has been mentioned during the Minsk talks alongside Nadiya Savchenko, the Ukrainian Rada deputy and pilot currently detained in Moscow, it is still unclear what his fate may be.


Oleg Sentsov has announced that if something happens to Nadiya Savchenko, currently on a two-month hunger strike, he will go on hunger strike

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