#FreeSentsov: Ukrainian Hostage in Russia Becomes Global Symbol of Free Speech
13 July, 2017

To mark the 41st birthday of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is currently being held as a political prisoner in Russia, human rights activists held a demonstration in Kyiv, Ukraine. Expressing their support for Sentsov and other Crimean political prisoners, they demanded their release, displaying a large banner with the words “Happy Birthday Oleg!” and the slogan “#FreeSentsov.” Hromadske spoke to Sentsov's cousin Nataliya Kaplan for updates on his case and condition. Here's what we found out.

The demonstration in support of Oleg Sentsov. Kyiv, Ukraine, 13/07/2017. Photo credit: hromadske

Three years have passed since Sentsov's arrest in the case of the so-called Crimean terrorists. According to lawyers and human rights activists, this case, in which four Ukrainians from Russian-occupied Crimea were accused of planning terrorist acts, does not hold and has all the hallmarks of political motivation. Nevertheless, Sentsov is currently serving the longest sentence of the four. On August 25, 2015 the North Caucasus Military District Court of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, sentenced him to 20 years in a maximum-security prison. Ukrainian activist, Oleksandr Kolchenko was also sentenced to 10 years in jail. Sentsov is accused of organizing a terrorist group in Russian-occupied Crimea, and Kolchenko is accused of participating it.

Background: In February 2014, after the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, clashes erupted between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protesters in Crimea. On February 27, Russian special forces in unmarked green uniforms began seizing control over key government buildings in the peninsula. While the Crimean parliament building was occupied the parliamentarians voted — some at gunpoint — to terminate the Crimean government and schedule a referendum on Crimean independence. The illegal referendum was held on March 16 to broad international condemnation. Around 95 percent of participating voters reportedly cast their ballots independence, according to the peninsula’s separatist officials. Three days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Crimean separatist leaders signed a draft treaty admitting Crimea into the Russian Federation. The treaty was subsequently ratified by the Russian legislature.

Since Sentsov’s arrest, many high-profile celebrities have supported the campaign for his release, including American movie star Meryl Streep. However, his cousin Natalya Kaplan claims that his situation remains unchanged. “We don’t see that things are moving. Nothing has changed in the last three years,” she told Hromadske. “He is still in prison. But it’s a kind of moral support which gives hope.”

According to Kaplan, political pressure is the only option for changing the Kremlin’s attitude towards the case. “Only politicians can get Oleg out of prison. Putin should lose interest in keeping him in prison,” she said.

Amnesty Protest - 66th Berlin Film Festival. Photo credit: EPA/GREGOR FISCHER

The case of the “Crimean terrorists” has been brought to the European Court of Human Rights, but this process could take a very long time. Kaplan sees little hope in this case yielding results:

“We have to understand that if we win the case, they will recommend that Russia review the decision. Russia will do that and say "no". The process can drag on for decades,” she told Hromadske. “We started the process, but don’t place much hope in it. Moreover, taking into account the amendments to the legislation, according to which Russian legislation is recognized, our chances aren’t high.”

The fact that Russian authorities issued Sentsov a Russian citizenship certificate complicates his case considerably; they do not consider him a citizen of Ukraine. According to Kaplan, Sentsov is “outraged” that he has become a Russian citizen without his consent:

“In court, he said that ‘I’m not a slave to be transferred with the land,’” Kaplan recalled. “A person has a Ukrainian passport, he has never had any Russian documents, he didn’t give up his Ukrainian citizenship and didn’t ask for a Russian one, and all of the sudden such things happen. The FSB [Russian Security Services] investigator made him a Russian citizen. Well, that's ridiculous.”

Although the Ukrainian government continues to raise the issue of political prisoners in negotiations with Russia and meetings with foreign politicians, Kaplan remains skeptical of the government taking real action. “There is no understanding of what can actually be done,” she said. “I can’t say that [I have] seen active actions. They are passive and even say that the situation is bad.”

In Russia, the attitude towards the “Crimean terrorists” case remains ambiguous. Kaplan claims that while the Russian opposition supports Sentsov and the other political prisoners, the rest of society is generally unaware of their situation.

“There is no division in the opposition, the people who are educated. All of them are clearly on the side of Oleg and other political prisoners. Nationality doesn’t even matter for them, because there are also a lot of Russians sitting in prisons, not only Ukrainians. They are fighting for everyone,” Kaplan explained. “Regarding the rest of the society, who are affected by propaganda, they do not even know about Oleg Sentsov. Nothing is said about him on TV. How could they know him?”

When asked about Sentsov’s condition, his cousin maintains that “he hasn’t changed” and remains hopeful that he will be released: “He lives with hope, although we try not to give him false hope. He believes. He still believes.”

WATCH MORE: Putin's Hostages Sentsov & Kolchenko

/Interview by Serhiy Mokrushyn

/Written by Eilish Hart, @EilishHart  , Matthew Kupfer, @Matthew_Kupfer