Ukrainian Filmmaker Oleg Sentsov Released After More Than Five Years in Russian Prison
Sentsov Honored in 2017 with PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award; PEN America has led global campaign for his freedom
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(New York, NY)—Ukrainian filmmaker and 2017 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award honoree Oleg Sentsov was freed from a Russian prison today after more than five years of unjust detention. His release is a long overdue moment of joy and celebration for Sentsov, his family, and all those who have fought for his freedom, PEN America said today.
“We are jubilant that Oleg is finally free to reunite with his beloved children and to speak his mind,” said Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s Chief Executive Officer. “The spurious case and draconian sentence imposed on Oleg are emblematic of the lengths to which despots will go to silence those who defy them, and the special cruelty they reserve for those who, through the power of writing and art can move others to resist as well. Oleg has always put the broader cause of freedom and free expression above his own plight, including by risking his life on hunger strike last year. As he promised, Oleg remained the nail that never bent. In that spirit of determination, we call on the Russian government to free all political prisoners. We hope that Oleg’s release after a worldwide campaign gives a light of hope to those who continue to face repression in Russia.”
In May 2014, Russian forces detained Sentsov in the Crimea region of Ukraine and brought him to Moscow on unsubstantiated allegations of terrorism. Numerous governments and human rights organizations have identified these allegations as politically charged, groundless fabrications orchestrated in retaliation for Sentsov’s outspoken criticism of Russia’s annexation of Sentsov’s native Crimea.
On August 25, 2015, a Russian court sentenced Sentsov to 20 years in prison. Sentsov maintained his innocence, despite attempts to torture him into yielding a false confession. His imprisonment included a grueling 145-day hunger strike in 2018, which he undertook to demand the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia.
In a 2016 letter from prison Sentsov wrote: “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.”
“Today we are celebrating Oleg’s freedom, and just as we have every day for the past five years, we are standing in awe of his strength and courage,” said Polina Kovaleva, PEN America’s Eurasia project director, who has led a worldwide campaign for Sentsov, said. “To his word, Oleg stood firm in the face of the harshest conditions. He continued to create and to write from behind bars, and with his hunger strike he mounted an act of discipline and self-denial that showed how one individual, ostensibly stripped of power, can take on an autocrat. We hope that, reunited with his family, he will resume his work as an artist and activist.”
PEN America awarded Sentsov the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award in May 2017 and has led a global campaign for his release ever since. In February 2018, PEN America organized a Global Day of Action for Sentsov, with rallies, readings, and other actions in 24 cities in 16 countries. In June 2018, more than 50 writers, artists and activists including Margaret Atwood, Christiane Amanpour, Salman Rushdie, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Patrick Stewart joined PEN America in signing an open letter to President Putin, demanding Oleg’s release.
“From the moment of Oleg’s imprisonment five years ago, we’ve been determined to thwart Russia’s efforts to silence him,” said Jennifer Egan, president of PEN America. “Oleg’s heroic grit and determination in the face of tyranny and injustice have inspired artists and writers worldwide, who have stood behind him unwaveringly. Today, all of us celebrate his release with his friends and family. And we at PEN America look forward to fighting on behalf of every persecuted writer and artist until all of us are free.”
In July 2018, PEN America issued a letter signed by dozens of arts and human rights organizations and over 12,500 individuals calling on President Trump to raise Sentsov’s case with Putin in their meeting. Also in July 2018, as the eyes of the world were fixed on the World Cup Final and the historic summit between Presidents Trump and Putin, PEN America locked arms with other activists from around the world at a mass demonstration in Helsinki, Finland promoting democracy, human rights, and peace, calling on Putin to free Sentsov and all political prisoners.
Members of the United States Congress, the European Parliament, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, the European Film Academy, and leading Russian intellectuals and cultural figures have all called for Sentsov’s release, as has the U.S. State Department. Sentsov also received the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in October 2018.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.