Oleg Sentsov was arrested in Simferopol on May 11, 2014, by Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) on suspicion of creating a terrorist cell affiliated to Right Sector, an organization that is banned in Russia. Three more people were arrested as a part of this case — Alexei Chirnii on May 9, lawyer Gennadii Afanasiev on May 19, and anti-fascist activist Alexandr Kolchenko on May 16.
Oleg Sentsov is a Ukrainian filmmaker from Crimea. His first film, “Gamer”, was released in 2011 and received several accolades from international art-house film festivals. During the first weeks of occupation of Crimea he was helping Ukrainian soldiers, who were under Russian blockade, by supplying them with food and water.
Right Sector is a Ukrainian nationalist political and paramilitary organization that was created during the protests on Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Right Sector was used by Russian propaganda to whip up the tension and manipulate Russian public opinion.
According to the law enforcers, Sentsov organized and managed a terrorist cell that was a part of Right Sector, and was planning and financing a number of terrorist attacks. Allegedly it was Sentsov who ordered to set on fire the buildings of Russian Community of Crimea and regional branch of United Russia. He also allegedly ordered to prepare another terrorist attack in Simferopol — to blow up a statue of Lenin and an Eternal Flame memorial. Sentsov pleaded innocence.
Afanasiev and Chirnii are key witnesses for prosecution in this case. They made a deal with the prosecutors, pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 7 years in high-security prison. In their testimonies they said what Sentsov ordered to prepare the terrorist attack and gave them the money to make explosive devices. Chirnii turned for help to his acquaintance, chemistry student Alexandr Pirogov, who had a previous record. FSB told Pirogov to make fake explosives and arrested Chirnii when he was taking them from a cache. During Sentsov’s trial Chirnii refused to answer new questions, but confirmed his previous testimony. Afanasiev refused to testify too and added that his previous statement was made under pressure.
It is possible that Chirnii testified under torture. On July 28 Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mariana Betsa said during a briefing at Ukrinform: “The abuses of human rights of certain Ukrainian citizens rouse indignation. Specifically we have information that Oleg Sentsov was tortured by Russian law enforcers in Crimea in May 2014. Moreover, there is information about another Ukrainian citizen, Alexei Chirnii, being tortured.”
Dmytro Dinze, Sentsov’s lawyer, also said during an interview with Interfax on July 21 that his client was tortured. “Oleg Sentsov is pleading innocence and waiting for a verdict of acquittal. He speaks with court officers rather brusquely, since he has spent a lot of time in custody. Besides, my client has said that he was tortured by the FSB,” Dinze said.
The defense is saying that Sentsov was never a member of a terrorist organization. He attended some meetings of pro-Ukrainian activists, but they were discussing the situation in Crimea and Sentsov was just an ordinary participant.
As far as Pirogov, who made the explosives for Chirnii, is concerned, his two convictions could have been used for applying pressure. Pirogov allegedly contacted the FSB, willing to cooperate, after Chirnii asked him to make explosives. All his conversations with Chirnii were recorded using a hidden camera and these recordings were shown during the trial. Sentsov was never mentioned in these conversations, since Chirnii mentioned only a man with a car who was giving the money and was connected either to AutoMaidan or Right Sector. There are no mentions of Sentsov in Chirnii’s first interrogation protocols as well.
The trial is held by North Caucasus District Court in Rostov-on-Don. Sentsov was sent there from FSB’s Lefortovo prison in Moscow. The prison is known for tight security and is used for prisoners of national importance. Sentsov was sent there shortly after being arrested and has been kept there for almost a year.
Sentsov is tried as a citizen of Russia, though he is a citizen of Ukraine and double citizenship is forbidden in Ukraine. Like the other Crimeans, Sentsov was given Russian citizenship automatically, regardless of his desire, since he did not file an application rejecting it. Filmmaker has filed a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights and to Russian General Prosecutor’s office. The prosecutors concluded that he has a double citizenship and he will be tried as a Russian citizen, since there is no agreement about double citizenship between Russia and Ukraine.
During the investigation law enforcers refused to let Ukrainian consul meet Sentsov. Only on June 21, 2015, Russian court decided to allow them to meet, but only after the core proceedings.
Sentsov case caused a significant stir in European film industry. European Film Academy along with a number of film directors, including Pedro Almodóvar, Bertrand Tavernier, Krzysztof Zanussi and others, have appealed to the Russian president, asking him to release Sentsov. Participants of Cannes and Vienna film festivals, including a few winners of Palme d'Or, have also signed appeals to release him. So far Russia has been ignoring these pleas.