Status: In Prison
Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director, was detained in Crimea in May 2014 and sentenced to 20 years in a Russian prison on charges of terrorism on August 25, 2015. PEN believes that the charges stem from Sentsov’s political activities, likely his outspoken criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and has expressed concern about shortcomings in the judicial process that led to his sentencing. Appeals against the original verdict were rejected by the Russian Supreme Court in November 2015 and June 2016. A request for Sentsov’s extradition to Ukraine was denied in October 2016 on the grounds that he had become a Russian citizen upon the annexation. He is currently serves his sentence in Polar Bear prison colony No. 8 in Labytnangi, in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug.
Best known for his 2011 film Gamer, Sentsov lived in Crimea’s capital of Simferopol and was active in protests against then-President of Ukraine Viktor F. Yanukovych, who led a pro-Kremlin government before he was removed from office in February 2014. As Russia became increasingly involved in Crimea in 2014, Sentsov became an outspoken critic of Putin’s creeping hand into Ukraine. He delivered food to Ukrainian soldiers blockaded in bases by Russian military.
On May 11, 2014, Russia’s Federal Security Service detained Sentsov in Crimea; he resurfaced a few days later in custody in Moscow. Sentsov was charged along with a co-defendant, Aleksandr Kolchenko, on suspicion of terrorism. During a trial hearing on August 25, 2015, Sentsov said he was tortured in an unsuccessful attempt to extract a confession. He had visible bruises on his body.
Sentsov was found guilty of creating a terrorist group, carrying out two terrorist acts, and plotting the explosion of a statue of Lenin in Simferopol. He was also accused of founding a Crimean branch of a banned Ukrainian nationalist group called Right Sector, which the group, as well as Sentsov, refutes. The key eyewitness against him, Gena Afanasev, retracted his original testimony saying it was coerced through torture. Despite an international outcry, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Many international governments—including that of the United States—believe that he has been convicted on groundless charges in retaliation for his anti-Kremlin views.
A year after his conviction, Sentsov smuggled a letter out of prison in September 2016, stating with certainty, “I know who will win. The desire for freedom and progress is unstoppable.” The end of the letter reads:
“There is no need to pull us out of here at all costs. This wouldn’t bring victory any closer. Yet using us as a weapon against the enemy will. You must know: we are not your weak point. If we’re supposed to become the nails in the coffin of a tyrant, I’d like to become one of those nails. Just know that this particular one will not bend.”
The next month, Sentsov was moved to a solitary punishment cell for 15 days. The Belarus Free Theatre has collaborated with Maria Alyhokhina of Pussy Riot to create a play, Burning Doors, based on the incarcerations of Alyokhina, performance artist Petr Pavlensky, and Sentsov to raise awareness about the prison system in Russia.
Putin has rejected calls for Sentsov’s release, maintaining that he was not convicted for his art or opinions, but because he had “dedicated his life to terrorist activities.”
Oleg Sentsov is the winner of the 2017 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) stands firmly with Oleg Sentsov and calls for his immediate release. As PEN America’s newest initiative, ARC brings together organizations around the world that are committed to defending and promoting artistic freedom of expression, and to ensuring that artists everywhere can live and work without fear.
Read more about Oleg’s story and his work here.