The case of the ‘Crimean terrorists’ was brought a few months ago, at a time when Crimea was in a state of high anxiety. The peninsula’s Russian-speaking population was expecting an invasion by the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist Right Sector (which had no intention of invading); the indigenous Tatar minority was waiting for pogroms (which never came); and another part of the population was waiting for some sort of response from Kyiv to halt Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. But with the capital in a state of flux following its change of government, the response never came. In this situation, it was hardly surprising to find people walking about at night carrying cans of petrol; and equally natural that other people saw them as a serious threat.
The individuals involved in the case come from a variety of backgrounds. Oleg Sentsov is an art-house film director, and had never been involved in political activities, before taking part in the Euromaidan in Kyiv, and then in protests against Russian aggression in Crimea. His recent activities had included delivering essential supplies to loyal Ukrainian troops.
‘There weren’t that many people who came out against the annexation. Oleg helped the blockaded Ukrainian forces; he brought them food, water, and medicine. Only a handful of people did this,’ says Oleg’s sister Natalya, explaining the FSB’s interest in her brother.
Oleg Sentsov is an art-house film director, and had never been involved in political activities.
Aleksandr Kolchenko is a graduate of a tourism college, and an anarchist. Although anarchists are supposed to challenge the state system and promote a global network of self-governing communes, it is no surprise that in the spring of 2014, Crimea’s anarchists wound up on the side of Ukraine. Ceding authority to the reactionary Putin regime was not an option for them.
Aleksei Chirnii is a university lecturer in military history; and Gennady Afanasyev a journalist, both with Ukrainian nationalist leanings.
Oleg Sentsov is facing 20 years in prison. Photo c: Ekaterina Chesnokova via RIA Novosti
‘Afanasyev is quite the glamour boy. He’s an amateur actor, reads poetry, takes photographs,’ I’m told by a local who wishes to remain anonymous. ‘Chirnii is into archeological digs and historical reconstructions, and affects a ‘military’ dress style. He is known as an impulsive character, drawn to dubious adventures. After the Maidan, people like that can end up in real shit.’
Sentsov and Chirnii are both in their thirties; Afanasyev and Kolchenko in their twenties. It is hard to know for sure whether they all even knew one another personally. Their lawyers have refused to comment on this until Sentsov has made a statement on the matter. ‘I personally have never seen Oleg with any of the others’ says Oleg’s sister. But all four have taken part in protests supporting Ukrainian unity.
People in Crimea are concerned that there will be more arrests; FSB investigators at the accused men’s custody hearings have said that, ‘not all members of the terrorist group have yet been identified.’ Ganila Dzhikaeva, an employee of Simferopol’s Karman art centre, has left Crimea for Ukraine, fearing arrest. Earlier this year, the centre held first aid courses; and supporters of Ukraine would hang out there.
People in Crimea are concerned that there will be more arrests.
The film director
Oleg Sentsov has two children, one of whom has autism. He used to run a computer club, where you could surf the internet and play computer games, either on your own or with other network users. Places like this act as social clubs for gamers.
The clubbers were in fact the subject of Sentsov’s film debut, ‘Gamer’, shot by the rookie director, who had had no formal training, for less than £12,000, with the help of 70 volunteer cast and crew.
Sentsov left the gaming business and devoted himself to promoting the film, which after its premiere in 2011 was well received at a number of art-house film festivals, including Rotterdam’s International Film Festival. His second film, ‘Rhino’, even received funding from the Ukrainian government, but he postponed filming as the events of the Maidan began to take over. ‘He’s a very driven man who lives off of ideas, not money. You can see that in his face,’ says Dilyara Tasbulatova, a Moscow-based film critic. ‘It’s hard enough to find funding in Moscow, and he’s all the way out in Simferopol, a very poor region. He made his first film, which turned out a great success, on next to nothing, and then found funding for his second. He saved the lives of Ukrainian soldiers, and now he’s being charged with terrorism. Oleg is very energetic, a natural leader. And that’s the kind of person they’re going to arrest.’
Even diehard Putin loyalist Nikita Mikhalkov has called for Sentsov's release. Photo CC: premier.gov.ru
‘Oleg is very energetic, a natural leader. And that’s the kind of person they’re going to arrest.’
The case against the ‘Crimean terrorists’ has received considerable outside attention, largely because a group of Russian, Ukrainian and European film directors have expressed support for Sentsov. Even the internationally known Nikita Mikhalkov, a diehard Putin loyalist, has called for his release, on state controlled Russian television.
At the end of August, Ukraine’s president Poroshenko awarded Sentsov the Order of Courage; and the directors’ support group intends to continue its activities. ‘All Ukrainian film makers have started going to protest rallies,’ says producer Olga Zhurenko, who has worked with the alleged terrorist. ‘We are currently planning a week-long Ukrainian film festival in support of Sentsov. Ukrainian producers are offering their films free of charge to help raise funds for his family. The European Film Academy has also written an open letter to Putin, and protests are taking place at major film festivals throughout Europe, where a conspicuous empty chair is left for Oleg. The jury for our festival includes film makers who are being affected by state repression, both Sentsov and others.’
Sentsov’s sister thinks the FSB were unaware of the fury they would unleash by targeting her brother as a terrorist. ‘They took these guys in to show the powers that be how diligent they were, and to scare off others. I don’t think they knew who my brother was. I’m sure if they had known they would have left him alone.’
The case for the defence
According to the FSB, all four accused are rebels from Right Sector, the party that has been Russian TV’s main bogeyman since the beginning of 2014. But this argument does not hold water. In the past, Chirnii had indeed reposted Right Sector material on his Vkontakte page, and one cannot exclude the possibility that Afanasyev was sympathetic towards Right Sector’s leader Dmytro Yarosh. But Sentsov has shown no affinity with the far right, and Kolchenko the anarchist has been involved in scuffles with neo-Nazis on more than one occasion. Moreover, Right Sector itself has released a press statement in which it explicitly states that these four individuals have nothing to do with the party.
The four accused men have chosen a variety of tactics in their defence. Sentsov, who the investigators are treating as the organiser of the terrorist acts, completely denies all charges. Kolchenko has denied all charges of terrorism but admits involvement in one act of arson. Afanasyev and Chirnii, on the other hand, have admitted to the charges against them, and are cooperating fully with investigators – they do not even have their own lawyers.
The four accused men have chosen a variety of tactics in their defence.
All four were arrested in May 2014. They are accused of two acts of arson carried out in April in Simferopol, on the newly opened offices of Russia’s ruling party United Russia (UR) and the The Russian Community of Crimea. Both fires, which took place at night, were quickly extinguished and there was no significant damage to property or harm to people.
This is how the media in Crimea reported the arson in April:
‘At nine minutes past four in the morning, two thugs approached the Russian Community of Crimea building. They were wearing hoods and caps pulled down over their eyes. One of the thugs doused the doors and the entrance porch with a flammable liquid. Having carried out the arson, the perpetrators fled the scene. The Crimean self-defence forces successfully located and extinguished the fire.’
‘The UR headquarters building on Aksakov Street in Simferopol has been firebombed. The fire only damaged the kitchen; the rest of the building was filled with smoke. The area of the fire covered around five square metres.’
‘We haven’t seen the case files yet, and I don’t know what sum they have put the damage at’ says Kolchenko’s lawyer, Svetlana Sidorkina, ‘but I think it was very minor. I saw the UR building, that Sasha is accused of setting on fire. There’s a black mark on the wall but that’s the only visible damage, at least from the outside.’
According to the FSB, the four had also planned an attack upon Lenin’s statue in Simferopol.
This is not what Russians usually describe as terrorism. Nevertheless, according to the FSB, the four had also planned an attack upon Lenin’s statue in Simferopol. This is entirely believable – the events of last winter brought an epidemic of such destruction by Ukrainian protesters. Indeed, this was such a regular occurrence that it was even given a name: ‘Leninopad’, [by analogy with the Ukrainian name for November, Listopad – literally, the time when the leaves fall: trans.]. The alleged terrorists were also supposedly planning to blow up the monument to the Eternal Flame, which commemorates the fallen heroes of the Second World War, as well as power and railway lines throughout Crimea. These so-called plans, however, do not stand up to closer examination. The terrorist attacks were supposedly planned for the night of 8 May but there were no explosions in Crimea that night, and the ‘terrorists’ were not taken into custody until a week later.
The investigation into the case has been carried out in secret, and the FSB has demanded that the lawyers sign a confidentiality agreement. This secrecy surrounding the case has only strengthened international support for Sentsov and his ‘accomplices’.
Director Ken Loach is campaigning for Sentsov's release. Photo CC: GMU
Sentsov is accused of organising the terrorist attacks; Kolchenko is charged with aiding and abetting terrorist activity, and one arson attack. The exact wording of the charges against Afanasyev and Chirnii is not yet known.
Since the cases are classified, the main source of available information is the FSB statements. From these one can deduce that explosives were found and seized from either Afanasyev or Chirnii, since there were none confiscated from Sentsov or Kolchenko. It is not yet known what role Afanasyev or Chirnii are supposed to have played in the arson attacks.
Attempting to deny Sentsov and Kolchenko consular assistance, FSB investigators claimed that they were Russian citizens, despite the fact that they had not given up their Ukrainian citizenship. Following the annexation of Crimea, they had simply not signed the document (whose legal status is dubious) stating that they did not wish to change citizenship. In other words, these two accused men have been ‘united with Russia’ along with the Crimean peninsula, a situation that has further amazed and angered Ukrainians.
Chirnii’s arrest was filmed and broadcast on Russian television. He was picked up at night as he was walking along the street, carrying a canister apparently filled with a combustible liquid and wrapped in wires. Lying on the ground and lit by police torches, Chirnii said that he had been ordered to carry this object, possibly by Right Sector. Sentsov, Kolchenko, and Afansev were not arrested at any ‘crime scene.’
Now all of them are in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, run by the FSB. Prisoners, especially those from the provinces, are taken to Lefortovo only in exceptional cases; and conditions there are not too bad by Russian standards.
It is clear that considerable pressure was put on the prisoners before they arrived in Lefortovo; what happened to Afanasyev and Chirnii is not known, but Sentsov has claimed through his lawyer that he was tortured in Simferopol. Kolchenko may have confessed voluntarily, on the advice of the lawyer provided to him by the State. ‘Kolchenko is totally unfitted for any terrorist activity’, a friend explains. ‘In Lefortovo he asked for a copy of ‘Neznaika’ [a popular children’s book whose central character is a young elf] to read: he’d never read it as a child and wanted to catch up. He is a very open person. If you say to him: “Sasha, you’re lying!” he immediately gets flustered. Some people are just like that.’
The FSB has a reputation for excellent information gathering, but a weak investigation department.
The investigation has only just begun and, according to lawyers, it is difficult to ascertain what evidence the FSB has. The FSB has a reputation for excellent information gathering abilities, but an exceedingly weak investigation department. No matter, the FSB’s shambolic investigations are always accepted by the courts.
These four Crimeans have become hostage to the ambiguities of Russian law. ‘Politically motivated arson,’ of which they are accused, can be interpreted either as damage to property – for which you are unlikely to receive a custodial sentence – or terrorism, which is punishable by up to 20 years.
The trials are due to begin in October, but Sentsov, Kolchenko, Afanasyev and Chirnii’s supporters are not without hope. They believe there could be a way to secure their release – as part of an exchange for Russians arrested in Ukraine on equally high profile charges, such as those detained for supporting the idea of Novorossiya, a political concept of an expanding Russia, which might be said to be the real reason behind much of what has been happening in Ukraine.