April Featured Case: Ukrainian Filmmaker Imprisoned in Russia On Charges of “Terrorism”
Three years ago, Ukrainian film director, screenwriter, novelist, and playwright Oleg Sentsov was seized from his home in Crimea and taken to Moscow by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. On August 25, 2015, Sentsov was convicted on charges of terrorism and sentenced to 20 years in a Russian prison. He has languished there ever since, with 17 years of his sentence still ahead of him. PEN America believes the charges against Sentsov are rooted in his political activities, namely his outspoken criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Sentsov is best known for his 2011 film Gamer, which premiered to critical acclaim at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and was featured at a number of other prestigious international festivals. Shot in the style of a documentary, the film is a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy, Koss, whose life is consumed with playing video games. Sentsov depicts little of Koss’s emotions or concerns and few clues about the nature of the game itself—a unique approach when compared to other films about the gaming world. This technique fosters a sense of distance and alienation as Koss hurtles uncertainly toward adulthood. Sentsov’s 2009 play Numbers depicts a dystopian world where men and women are given numbers instead of names. The world is strictly ruled by a man called Zero until the rebellion of two men in particular, Seven and Nine, leads to Seven becoming a dictator. Hailed for being ahead of its time, the play’s many symbols and metaphors are poignant, given the recent demonstrations and civil unrest that have swept Ukraine and Russia. Prison has not diminished Sentsov’s drive to create—while there, he has written five screenplays and completed a novel.
Before being forcibly removed to Russia in 2015, Sentsov lived in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol. He was an active participant in protests against then-President Viktor F. Yanukovych and his pro-Kremlin government. In 2014, Sentsov became a vocal critic of Russia’s increased involvement in Ukraine, speaking out against Vladimir Putin and delivering food to Ukrainian soldiers blockaded in bases by the Russian military.
Following the annexation of Crimea on May 11, 2014, Sentsov was detained and charged along with a co-defendant, Aleksandr Kolchenko, on suspicion of terrorism. Sentsov, visibly bruised at an August 25, 2015, trial hearing, stated that he had been tortured by Russian authorities in an unsuccessful attempt to force a confession. At the trial’s conclusion, Sentsov was found guilty of forming a terrorist group, carrying out two terrorist acts, and plotting to bomb a statue of Lenin in Simferopol. Further, he was accused of founding a Crimean branch of a banned Ukrainian nationalist group called Right Sector. Both Right Sector and Sentsov refute this claim. Gena Afanasev, the key eyewitness in the case against Sentsov, later retracted his testimony on the grounds that it had been coerced through torture.
In November 2015 and June 2016, the Russian Supreme Court rejected appeals of the original verdict. In October 2016, a request to extradite Sentsov to Ukraine was denied on the grounds that Crimea’s annexation made him a Russian citizen.
For the last three years, the international arts and culture community has rallied around Sentsov. Following his detention in 2014, some of Europe’s most well-respected film directors, including Pedro Almodóvar, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Agnieszka Holland, Stephen Daldry, Béla Tarr, and Wim Wenders, signed a letter to Vladimir Putin and Russian leaders demanding justice for Sentsov.
On November 30, 2014, Teatr.doc, a Moscow-based theater for documentary drama, presented readings from Sentsov’s play Numbers. The play had never before been performed, proving to be a remarkable and subversive way to raise awareness about Sentsov’s case.
Joining forces with Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, the Belarus Free Theatre is currently touring Burning Doors, which tells the stories of persecuted artists—including those of Alyokhina herself, Russian performance artist Petr Pavlensky, and Sentsov. The theater’s artist-led campaign “I’m with the Banned” brings together those who are free to express themselves in solidarity with artists and activists who have been banned, censored, or imprisoned in Belarus, Russia, and around the world. This year, “I’m with the Banned” is shining a spotlight on Sentsov’s case, calling for his immediate release.
At the Nika film awards on March 28, 2017, renowned Russian film director and outspoken Sentsov advocate Alexander Sokurov used his acceptance speech to address his December 2016 conversation with President Putin about Sentsov’s case. “I’m waiting for a decision from the president, the answer to my question about the fate of Oleg Sentsov. And the president said that he would think about this problem,” said Sokurov.
Most recently, an international team of filmmakers seeking to contribute to the international campaign to free Sentsov created a documentary entitled The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov, directed by Askold Kurov. It was selected to be shown at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival in February 2017. At the screening, the European Film Academy and Amnesty International staged a protest against Sentsov’s incarceration.
This month, at the Polish Film Academy’s Eagle awards ceremony in Warsaw, hundreds of attendees raised signs that translate to “I am Oleg Sentsov” to show support for the filmmaker.
Despite fierce international criticism, Putin continues to reject calls for Sentsov’s release, claiming that Sentsov was convicted not 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.