Oleg Sentsov and Aleksandr Kolchenko: prisoners of conscience

Statement on the sentencing of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and co-defendant Aleksandr Kolchenko.

Editors of OpenDemocracy Russia
28 August 2015
Oleg Sentsov and Aleksandr Kolchenko in court

Oleg Sentsov and Aleksandr Kolchenko in court. (c) Sergei Pivovarov, VisualRIANIn the aftermath of Russia’s military occupation of Crimea in February 2014, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was busy. Maidan, as Sentsov stated in a Rostov military court on 6 August, had been ‘the main act of his life’. Later, after the dust began to settle, Sentsov set to work back in his hometown of Simferopol.

Helping journalists covering the fast-moving events on the ground, Sentsov assisted Ukrainian troops under blockade, driving them across Crimea to mainland Ukraine. He also searched for activists who had gone missing during the occupation. Some of them were never found.

However, it soon became clear that demonstrations and organising by local residents against the Russian occupation were not going to change the situation. Protest leaders were abducted ahead of the referendum on 16 March announced by the self-proclaimed government; a Crimean Tatar, Reshat Ametov, had been found dead the day before. Ten days prior, Ametov had held a solitary picket in the centre of Simferopol. 

On 9 May, a man known to Sentsov as ‘Tundra’ informed him that Gennady Afanasyev, who had travelled with Sentsov to the Kyiv Maidan, had been arrested by the security services. ‘Tundra’, as it turned out, was Aleksandr Kolchenko, a local student and anarchist.

Later that day, Afanasyev rang Sentsov to arrange a meeting. The latter immediately turned off his mobile, and tried to find out what had become of Afanasyev. As Senstov described: Afanasyev’s voice sounded as if he’d been sentenced to death.

On 10 May, Sentsov was detained outside his home in Simferopol. A bag was placed over his head, and he was bundled into a waiting bus, which delivered him to the old SBU (Ukrainian Security Services) headquarters.

Here, under the eye of the Russian FSB, investigators demanded Sentsov give evidence on his alleged plans to blow up the city’s Lenin monument. They kicked and punched Sentsov, beat him with truncheons, and then began to suffocate him with plastic bags.

Sentsov was then undressed and threatened with rape by truncheon, before being told he would be executed and buried in a forest. This was only the start of Sentsov’s trial.

‘I am a citizen of Ukraine’

The ‘official’ investigation into Sentsov began in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, where he and Aleksandr Kolchenko, together with Gennady Afanasyev and Aleksei Chirnyi, were implicated as members of a Crimean group that had planned a series of ‘terrorist acts’ .

On orders from unknown persons in Kyiv, this group, including four other people as yet still at large, planned to ‘destabilise’ the situation in Crimea.

According to the investigation, Sentsov was the leader of this group, a local branch of Right Sector, a radical Ukrainian nationalist organisation that rose to the fore during Maidan last year. Certain elements of the Russian press and politicians have come to use Right Sector as a catch-all scare-symbol of violent nationalist revolution (the Russian authorities consider it a terrorist organisation), particularly in the early stages of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. 

Indeed, the primary charges include setting alight the doors of a Russian community organisation building in Simferopol, as well as the windows of the local branch of United Russia. Though Kolchenko refused to give testimony, he does not deny participating in the arson attack against the United Russia office.

According to the investigation, this group also planned not only to blow up the Lenin monument, but also a monument to the Soviet war dead, the city’s ‘eternal flame’.

Ordinary fascism

The evidence against these men, however, is farcical. The bulk of the evidence of this group’s activities is based on the testimony of Aleksei Chirnyi, a history lecturer, and Gennady Afanasyev, a lawyer. Both of these men, who took part in Maidan activities, were arrested in May 2014, and have provided the only evidence of terrorist plans.

This evidence was gained under severe pressure and, according to the men themselves, torture. Both Afanasyev and Chirnyi were sentenced to prison on terrorism charges in December 2014. Afanasyev has since recanted his testimony, staying it was given under pressure. Chirnyi, a more eccentric character, seems to have planned a solo attack on the Lenin monument, only for an acquaintance to inform on him, and then set him up. The evidence of Chirnyi's plans, videos of his conversations with this acquaintance, does not feature Oleg Sentsov once.

The evidence against these men is farcical. It was gained under severe pressure and, according to Sentsov, torture.

Meanwhile, the investigation’s evidence of Sentsov’s supposedly radical beliefs include copies of Mikhail Romm’s classic documentary Ordinary Fascism (1965), and The Third Reich in Colour (1998) found at his apartment. If you’ve ever seen these films, and Senstov’s 2011 Gamer, you’d find the idea that Sentsov is an extremist hard to believe. 

Regardless of the highly dubious evidence, there are numerous procedural violations involved in this case, which have not been addressed. Though both men are Ukrainian citizens, the Russian courts and investigative agencies have treated Kolchenko and Sentsov as citizens of the Russian Federation and denied them access to consultation with their consulate’s representatives.

Moreover, under international law, citizens of occupied territory cannot be removed or deported by an occupying force. There is evidence of pressure and torture against Sentsov, as well as the need for investigation in the case of other members of this group. In another grim legal twist, the bruises on Sentsov's body were declared evidence of his 'sado-masochistic' inclinations by a Russian prosecutor. 

‘Ukraine has still not died’

Despite efforts by rights activists, filmmakers, and many others over the past year, on 25 August, Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison, Aleksandr Kolchenko – 10.

As the men were sentenced, standing in the ‘fish tank’ (cage for defendants in Russian courts), they sang Ukraine’s national anthem: ‘Ukraine has still not died’.

The Sentsov-Kolchenko case is yet another tragic instance of the Russian state’s legal nihilism and tendency towards intimidation and repression as a system of social management. That is painfully true for the citizens of Crimea. In the past year, searches, arrests, and criminal investigations have swept the peninsula, as local authorities search for the slightest reason to strap ‘undesirable’ Crimean residents up on criminal charges.

For instance, take Akhtem Chiygoz, deputy head of the Crimean Tatar Meijlis, who is currently on trial for organising a riot following the 26 February 2014 demonstration and could face up to ten years if found guilty, or Aleksandr Kostenko, a former policeman turned Maidan activist, who was sentenced to four years of prison on 15 May for allegedly injuring a Berkut officer during the Kyiv Maidan and illegally storing a firearm. Kostenko claims he was tortured during the investigation.

More than a year into a bloody conflict in the east and the occupation of Crimea, the strong-arm tactics of the Russian security establishment continue.

'Why bring up a new generation of slaves?'

The sentencing of Sentsov and Kolchenko comes at a time of heightened tension and an unprecedented crackdown on civil society in Russia.

Russian media were quick to draw parallels to the release of Yevgenia Vasilyeva by a court in Vladimir, on the same day as Sentsov and Kolchenko's sentencing. Vasilyeva, a former Defence Ministry bureaucrat, was found guilty of embezzling some three billion roubles (£38 million) in an intricate scheme involving the selling off of ministry property.

The case attracted a great deal of attention given Vasilieva's alleged relationship with former Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. Her early release has dismayed both United Russia members and opposition activists, for whom it is a clear illustration of a corrupt and cynical political establishment. A Levada Center poll in May revealed that 61 percent of Russians thought that Vasilievna's five-year sentence was too lenient, while more recent polling on 27 August found that 70 percent of Russians disapproved of her parole.

International attention continues to be drawn to the case of Sentsov and Kolchenko, along with those of other Ukrainian citizens behind bars in Russia such as pilot Nadiya Savchenko. On 26 August, the Ukrainian government submitted its fourth complaint against Russia to the European Court of Human Rights, concerning Russia's violations of Ukrainian citizens' rights in the Sentsov and Kolchenko hearing. Renowned Russian film-makers Alexander Sokurov and Alexey Zvyagintsev, director of the recent and acclaimed Leviathan, have voiced support for their jailed Ukrainian colleague.

Sentsov's final words at the trial, 'why bring up a new generation of slaves?' have become something of a slogan for his cause. The sentiment has been echoed by Russian daily Vedomosti, which writes that the sentence aimed to intimidate the populace as to the omnipotence of the country's security services. The editorial concluded that the trial set out to make a mockery of the powerful message of civil society. 'We will do as we like, and you will like it'.

Journalist Oleg Kashin forbids Russian citizens the shame which will come to many too easily. 'Shame', Kashin writes, 'is a form of solidarity. Are you so sure that the Russian government deserves your solidarity?'

With the events of 25 August in mind, we find it a compelling question.

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