Why Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov is on hunger strike

Imprisoned in the Russian Far North, Oleg Sentsov is holding a hunger strike to force the release of 64 Ukrainian political prisoners. 

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Free Sentsov. Free the Hostages of Kremlin

Saturday June 2,   13:00–15:00 

Downing St, Westminster, London SW1A 2AB


Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director from Simferopol and a political prisoner of the Kremlin, is on Day 16 of a hunger strike. Sentsov selected the start date (14 May) to make sure that he will have been striking for a full month by the start of the Football World Cup, which begins in Russia on 14 June. The aim of Sentsov’s protest is the release of 64 Ukrainian citizens who are currently held in the Russian Federation on political grounds.Ken Loach poster2

In summer 2014, Sentsov, an AutoMaidan activist from Crimea, was accused of terrorism offences — he reportedly planned to set a local United Russia office on fire and blow up a local Lenin monument. The investigation and trial was based on testimony received under torture and later retracted. No evidence of any terrorist group existing in Crimea was ever found, and the only thing that “proved” Sentsov’s membership of Ukrainian far-right group Right Sector, a name used by Kremlin propaganda to whip up fear of a “Nazi junta” in Kyiv, was a CD containing the Soviet documentary “Ordinary Fascism”.

During his trial in 2015, Sentsov refused to recognise that Russian citizenship had been imposed on him, claiming that he wasn’t a serf to be sold with the land. Without a shred of evidence, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and is currently being held in a prison colony in the Far North Of Russia. The fact that Sentsov is both a film director and a incredibly brave individual has guaranteed him media support and international public opinion — which hasn’t, it should be said, so far led to his release. But he isn’t on hunger strike for himself: he is striking for all Ukrainian political prisoners currently held in the Russian Federation.

Antoniw Kolchenko-Poster

The majority of these prisoners are residents of Crimea, and many are Crimean Tatars. For many of these cases, there’s only one or two mentions of them to be found in the media. All the cases detailed below are politically motivated: there is either insufficient evidence behind these prosecutions, or the charges being prosecuted are too serious for the evidence available. All these individuals should be released and sent to Ukraine as soon as possible.

Oleksandr Kolchenko, an anarchist from Crimea. He was sentenced alongside Sentsov in the “Crimean Terrorists” case relating to the torching of a door at the United Russia building in Simferopol. He received 10 years in prison.

Volodymyr Balukh, a farmer from Crimea. He raised a Ukrainian flag above his house and installed a street sign that read “Street of the Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred”. Balukh is also currently on the 72nd day of a hunger strike. He received three years and seven months in prison.

Mykola Karpyuk, one of the leaders of UNA-UNSO, and Stanyslav Klykh, a history teacher. Karpyuk and Klykh were sentenced in the fabricated case against former Ukrainian prime minister Arseny Yatsenyuk for his alleged role in the First Chechen War. Klykh is still dealing with the mental consequences of being tortured. They received 22 years and six months and 20 years respectively.

Pavlo Gryb, a student who travelled to Belarus to meet a woman who, as it became apparent, was working for the Russian security services. He is charged with espionage. He is facing between five and ten years in prison.

Oleksandr Kostenko, a participant in EuroMaidan and policeman from Crimea. Kostenko was investigating human trafficking in the Russian Federation, and was arrested by the very people he was investigating and charged with assault and possession of a firearm. He has been sentenced to three years and 11 months.

Ali Asanov and Mustafa Degermendzhi were participants in a public rally against Russian annexation of Crimea on 26 February 2014 in Simferopol. They are facing eight years in prison.

Bekir Degermendzhi, Asan Chapukh, Kyazim Ametov, Ruslan Trubach are activists from the Crimean Tatar resistance. These men were arrested in a cafe. During the arrest, 82-year-old veteran Crimean Tatar activist Vedzhie Kashka suffered a heart attack and died en route to the hospital. They are charged with extortion.

Ernest Ametov, Server Zekiryaev, Seiran Saliyev, Memet Belyalov, Marlen (Suleiman) Asanov, Timur Ibragimov, Uzair Abdullayev, Teimur Abdullayev, Emil Dzhemadenov, Rustem Ismailov, Aider Saledinov, Rustem Abiltarov, Zevri Abseitov, Remzi Memetov, Enver Mamutov, Refat Alimov, Arsen Dzhepparov, Vadim Siruk, Emir-Usein Kuku, Muslim Aliyev, Enver Bekirov, Ferat Saifullayev, Nuri (Yuri) Primov, Rustem Vaitov, Ruslan Zeitullayev, Nariman Memedeminov — these men are Crimean Tatars who have been charged or sentenced for their real or alleged membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation (banned in Russia) that calls for the peaceful establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. These men are facing from 10 to 20 years in prison.

Talyat Abdurakhmanov, Seiran Mustafayev, Arsen Kubedinov, Renat Suleimanov are activists in the Crimean Tatar resistance. They are accused of extremist activity.

Emil Minasov, a Facebook user who posted a petition in support of men charged in the “26 March Case” — Ali Asanov and Mustafa Degermendzhi, and the now released Akhtem Chiigoz. He is facing one year and three months.

Oleksiy Stogniy, a Ukrainian sailor. He has been sentenced for alleged espionage for Ukrainian. He received three years and six months.

Gleb Shabliy, a businessman. In 2016, the TV channel Russia-1 broadcast a video where Shablyi allegedly confesses to spying for Ukraine. This case is currently being examined in camera.

Volodymyr Prysych, a truck driver. After having been tortured, Prisych read out a text to camera in which he confessed to espionage. He was sentenced for drug possession, and suffer a minor heart attack during trial. He was sentenced to three years.

Volodymyr Dudka, a civil specialist with Ukraine’s Emergency Ministry, and Oleksiy Bessarabov, an analyst. Both were accused of espionage. They are likely to face 20 years in prison.

Dmitry Shtyblikov, a loader at the Russian Federation Emergency Ministry in Sevastpol. He has been accused of espionage. He is facing five years in prison.

Yevhen Panov, a driver and volunteer, and Andriy Zakhtey, a plasterer. Both have been charged with participating in an espionage group. They are facing between 12 and 20 years in prison.

Mykola Shyptur, a EuroMaidan activist who travelled to Crimea to support a public rally to mark the 200th anniversary of Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko. He was detained by a so-called “Self-Defence” group, and charged with attempted murder. His sentence is 10 years.

Andriy Kolomiets, a EuroMaidan activist who was living in Kabardino-Balkariya, Russia, and was arrested for being involved in Maidan. He was sentenced for drug possession and murder attempt. He was sentenced to 10 years.

Mykola Dadeu, a volunteer from Mykolaiv. He was arrested in Novorossiisk, Crimea, and is accused of assisting Right Sector.

Oleksiy Sizonovych, a pensioner from Krasnodon. He is accused of preparing terrorist acts. He experienced clinical death on two occasions after being tortured during investigation. He is sentenced to 12 years.

Oleksiy Chirniy, a history teacher. During the “Crimean Terrorists” case, he incriminated himself and other participants. He is sentenced to seven years in prison.

Serhiy Lytvynov, a worker from Luhansk region. He was abducted from a Russian hospital, and accused of robbery. He was sentenced to eight years and six months in prison.

Valentyn Vygovskyi, a businessman. He was abducted by the FSB during a personal visit to Crimea and accused of espionage. He was sentenced in 2015 to 11 years.

Viktor Shur, a businessman who allegedly photographed a sensitive military site and was accused of espionage. He was sentenced to 12 years.

Oleksandr Shumkov, a former bodyguard to Right Sector leader Dmyro Yarosh. Shumkov doesn’t remember how he found himself in a Pre-Trial Detention Centre in Bryansk, Russia. He has started a hunger strike in support of Oleg Sentsov. He is facing between two and six years in prison.

Dmytro Dolgopolov, a Ukrainian soldier who transferred to the Russian army, and Ganna Sukhonosova, a fitness instructor. Both are accused of espionage.

The entire length of sentences handed out to these people so far, according to human rights defenders, is 189 years. The Ukrainian authorities, meanwhile, have not rushed to work on the release of Ukrainian citizens systematically. In the four years since the first people were detained in 2014, the Ukrainian authorities have not created an official position that would be responsible for prisoner release or exchange. Recently, the Ukrainian press reported that activists involved the campaign to support Oleg Sentsov have faced problems — first, a printing service refused to produce leaflets for the Sentsov campaign on the pretext of pressure from the Ukrainian security services, and then the Kyiv city authorities demanded that a banner in support of Sentsov should be removed from the city’s House of Cinema (apparently it was “political advertising”, which was banned during the Champions League Final in Kyiv).

Michael Calderbank Kolchenko

The only man appointed — without any legal recognition of this position or legal responsibility for any inappropriate activity — to work on prisoner exchange on the Ukrainian side is, for some reason, Viktor Medvedchuk. This man, who back in the 1980s imprisoned Ukrainian dissidents such as Vasyl Stus, was a strong opponent of EuroMaidan, and enjoys personal relationship with Vladimir Putin (since the latter is reported to be his daughter’s godfather). Medvedchuk is also found on US and Canadian sanctions list.

The only way to help release the Kremlin’s hostages is simultaneously pressuring the Russian and Ukrainian authorities to start negotiations on prisoner exchange or release immediately. The international community can act as a mediator at these negotiations in order to guarantee their effectiveness.

If negotiations on prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine don’t start in the next few days, there is a risk that Oleg Sentsov will die on hunger strike.

version of this text originally appeared on Nihilist. 

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