Oleg Sentsov wins EU Parliament's human rights prize
Who is Oleg Sentsov?
The 42-year-old Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was born in the city of Simferopol, the administrative capital of what Russia has called the Republic of Crimea since annexing the peninsula in 2014. Sentsov, who is best known for his 2011 film "Gamer," has been a fierce critic of Russia's involvement in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, which followed a controversial referendum. After the outbreak of the Euromaidan protests in November 2013, Sentsov joined the Automaidan movement and helped deliver food to Ukrainian soldiers surrounded by the Russian military in Crimea.
Why was he imprisoned in Russia?
In May 2014, Sentsov was arrested in Crimea by Russia's FSB security service. He was accused of collaborating with the Ukrainian far-right ultranationalist group Right Sector to plot attacks on pro-Russian organizations in the cities of Simferopol, Sevastopol and Yalta. The "terrorist group" that Sentsov allegedly led carried out two arson attacks — one on the office door of the Russian Community in Crimea association and another at the headquarters of the ruling United Russia party in Simferopol. In addition, Sentsov was charged with conspiring to blow up the city's Lenin monument and Eternal Flame memorial.
The evidence against Sentsov provided by the prosecution was largely based on the testimonies of two other defendants in the case, Gennady Afanasyev and Alexey Chirniy, who were eventually found guilty and sentenced to seven years in jail. Afanasyev, who was the main prosecution witness, later withdrew his confession, saying he had been forced to testify against Sentsov and that he had been tortured.
Still, in August 2015, a Russian military tribunal in Rostov-on-Don sentenced the Ukrainian film director to 20 years in a high-security penal colony. Sentsov claims to have been beaten, showing his wounds as evidence. But the tribunal dismissed his bruises, suggesting that he had inflicted them upon himself.
The fact that no one was injured in the arson attacks was also ignored by the court. After the country's Supreme Court dismissed his appeal, Sentsov was sent to serve his sentence in a prison camp above the Arctic Circle, in the Russian town of Labytnangi.
Read more: Activist Zoya Zvetova shares concerns about human rights violations in Russia
Sentsov was tried as a Russian citizen despite holding only Ukrainian citizenship. In October 2016, Russia denied a request for Sentsov's extradition to Ukraine on the grounds that he had become a Russian citizen upon the annexation of Crimea.
Why did Sentsov go on a hunger strike?
On May 14, 2018 Sentsov went on a 145-day hunger strike, demanding that all Ukrainian political prisoners be freed from Russian jails. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, their number has now reached 64. Although the hunger strike posed a threat to Sentsov's life, his lawyer Dmitry Dinze pointed out that his client did not want to starve himself to death. "His goal is not to commit suicide or die in jail but to win. He just wants his demands to be met," Dinze revealed in an interview with Russia's online magazine Afisha Daily. He ended the strike on October 5.
Why is he considered a political prisoner?
Sentsov's case has received widespread international attention, with several human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch denouncing the judgement as disproportionate and politically motivated. Numerous prominent intellectuals, such as Nobel laureates Herta Müller and Svetlana Alexievich or film directors like Pedro Almodovar and Aki Kaurismäki, have also highlighted Sentsov's plight. Russia's best-known human rights organization, Memorial, deems Sentsov a political prisoner and has demanded his release.
Sentsov has pleaded 'not guilty' to all charges. "I consider myself a Maidan activist, but that does not mean that I am a criminal," he said in his courtroom speech. "We drove out our criminal president. When your country occupied Crimea, I returned there and engaged in the same volunteer work as on Maidan," he added. Sentsov also pointed out that he had spoken to hundreds of people and "considered what to do next."
"But I never called on anybody to carry out actions that could have led to deaths. I did not create terrorist organizations, and I certainly had nothing to do with Right Sector," he claimed.