How Russia Created 'Terrorist' Image For Sentsov and Kolchenko
29 May, 2018

Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian filmmaker illegally convicted in Russia, has been on a hunger strike for over two weeks. Just like activist Oleksandr Kolchenko who was tried in the same case, he has been in Russian prison for almost four years.

On August 25, 2015, the North Caucasus Military District Court of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, sentenced Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov for 20 years in supermax prison and Ukrainian left-wing activist Oleksandr Kolchenko for 10 years in jail. Sentsov is accused of organizing a terrorist group in Crimea, and Kolchenko of participating in it.

Photo credit: Anton Naumliyk/(RFE / RL)

This was the first sentencing in a number of high-profile cases against kidnapped Ukrainian citizens in Russia. They are a perfect case study for the growing threat of state-forced destruction of the Russian judicial system as well as an alarming example of the global community’s inability to defend the international law. Hromadske studied the details of the case that Russian investigators have carefully created over the past half-year.

Here’s why the pieces of their story don’t fit together.

People Involved in the Case

Oleg Sentsov

“When I denied their charges, they said I could provide evidence towards the prosecution of leaders of the Maidan. If [you say that] they gave you an order, you’ll get seven years. No –  we’ll make you the leader and you’ll get 20 years.”

Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov remembers that day well. On May 10, 2014 (The case file has another date, May 11) he was detained at the entrance of his house in Simferopol.

The referendum had already been held in Crimea; pro-Ukrainian rallies at which the director took part in had finished. Pro-Ukrainian activists met from time to time to exchange symbols, discuss future rallies and how to help families who had Ukrainian soldiers blocked inside Ukrainian military bases. Courses on medical care were held in Karman, an art center in Simferopol. Sentsov had been getting ready to shoot his second feature film “The Rhinoceros,” he had collected some money over the winter, but because of the Maidan demonstrations, he had postponed filming. The annexation of the Crimea began shortly afterward.

Oleh Sentsov. Photo credit: Mediazona

During his court prosecution, Sentsov spoke in detail about the evening he was first abducted. He recounted how he had a bag put over his head and how he was forced into a van, which brought him to the building of the SBU (former KGB) in Simferopol. There he was beaten, strangled, stripped and threatened with rape. His interrogators demanded he name the Crimean activists who planned to blow up a statue of Lenin.

"When I refused to cooperate, they offered to give evidence against the leaders of the Maidan. If they gave you an order you’ll get 7 years. No — we’ll make you the head and you’ll get 20," said the director.

Photo credit: Nataliya Gumenyuk/HROMADSKE

Then Sentsov was taken home for a search of his house. “Nothing was found except for the most important thing in my life — my child, who could do nothing but watch all this.”

Afterward, Sentsov was sent to Moscow. His statements about torture won’t be read at his trial nor attached to the case file. The Russian prosecutor has already established that Sentsov’s bruises are in fact "results of sadomasochistic inclinations."

Oleksandr Kolchenko

While in prison, Kolchenko asked to send him books by Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko. It took prison censors more than a month to check three volumes.

Oleksandr Kolchenko during a court hearing in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. August, 2015. Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Oleksandr Kolchenko is from Simferopol, Crimea, and before his arrest had studied geography at Tauride University. “I’m anti-fascist and anarchist,” he emphasized several times during his court proceedings. Kolchenko participated in numerous events, marches in support of students, strikes supporting workers of Krymtrolleybus, and was an active participant of the environmental movement.

He met Oleg Sentsov in February 2014. Together with mutual friends, they traveled to Kyiv for the Euromaidan demonstrations where Oleksandr spent one and a half days. In court, both he and Sentsov have openly stated that Euromaidan is one of the most impressive events either has ever seen. “It was an incredible example of mutual support. I also actively participated: brought food, cleaned snow.“

While in prison, Kolchenko asked to send him books by Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko. It took prison censors more than a month to check three volumes. Finally, they permitted it. In Rostov prison, he’ll read Lesia Ukrianka, a celebrated Ukrainian poet. “It is unusual to read her in Russian,” he wrote to his mother.

Hennadiy Afanasiev

“All the evidence was given under pressure. I slandered Sentsov and Kolchenko."

A photographer and lawyer by education, Hennadiy Afanasiev met Oleg Sentsov at a pro-Ukrainian rally in Simferopol.

“I exchanged contacts with Oleg for future work – I knew that he is a film director,” he explained later in court. Afanasiev was detained in the center of Simferopol on May 9, 2014. Only half a year after his arrest did his lawyer report that the boy was also beaten, tortured and forced to confess to “acts of terrorism”.

A search was held at Afanasiev’s home, all his photography equipment was seized (nobody knows where it is now). Afanasiev confessed to participation in the arson of Russian Unity and Party of Regions offices and made a deal with the prosecution: In exchange for testimony against Sentsov, he will get seven years in prison.

Only on July 31, 2015, in the hall of the Rostov court, Afanasiev abandoned all his previous testimony, except that relating to his participation in the arson of offices. “All the other evidence was given under pressure, I slandered Sentsov and Kolchenko," he said.

Oleksiy Chyrniy

In the courtroom Chyrniy sits a few meters away from Sentsov, and never looks at him.

One of the favorite pastimes of 34-year-old Chyrniy is historical re-enactments. A historian by profession, he enjoyed jousting tournaments and participated in archaeological excavations. He was known by the nicknames Helicopter and Marine. Some considered him eccentric, even in the midst of the Crimea annexation, he continued walking the streets of Simferopol in camouflage. He was discharged from his military service for health reasons because of psychological problems.

Photo credit: Artur Asafiev/(RFE / RL)

Chyrniy had met Afanasiev at one of the pro-Ukrainian rallies before the referendum was held. They met several more times, and at one of these meetings, he was introduced to Oleg Sentsov. He was already familiar with Kolchenko, they had previously met at the archaeological excavation.

Chyrniy has a very key role in this case. Chyrniy had asked his friend from jousting tournaments, Oleksandr Pyrogov, on how to make homemade explosives. He planned to blow up a statue of Lenin, this was to become the pinnacle of his achievements as an activist.

However, Chyrniy failed in choosing trustworthy companions. Pyrogov reported on Chyrniy to the FSB, who gave Pyrogov a hidden video camera and ordered him to film all the meetings between the two. Two other friends – Dius and Kiriusha – whom Chyrniy also planned to involve in blowing up the Lenin statue, turned out to be representatives of the so-called "Crimean homeguard”. They also testified against him in court.

To set up Chyrniy, the FSB produced dummy explosives. Pyrogov brought and left them for Chyrniy in the agreed upon location. There, near the caches, Chyrniy was arrested on May 9, 2014. He admits involvement in the arson of Russian unity and Party of Regions offices and quickly makes a deal with the investigation on the same conditions as Afanasiev in exchange for testimony against Sentsov, he will be offered seven years of imprisonment.

In a Moscow jail, Russian human rights activist and journalist Zoia Svetova will visit Chyrniy. She learns that Chyrniy was in a psychiatric hospital, “Butyrki”, cellmates said that he had talked about suicide. In Moscow, Chyrniy was isolated by his court-appointed lawyer. The attempts of another lawyer, Ilia Novikov (later dealing with Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko's case) to persuade him to change his previous testimony ended in defeat. Having been in the information isolation, Chyrniy refused the lawyer’s services.

The largest part of the prosecution case is based on the talks of Chyrniy and Pyrogov. Videos of these meetings will be demonstrated in Rostov court almost in full. However, Sentsov’s name does not appear in them.

Karman Art Center 

“He emphasized that there are no radical movements in Crimea, because here are the military people and the situation is completely different from the one which was at the Euromaidan. Only peaceful actions are possible.”

Simferopol Art Center “Karman”, an independent art center in Crimea, was the location, which, according to the investigators, the meetings of “terrorists” were held.

Pro-Russian sympathizers bearing a Russian flag march past pro-Ukrainian sympathizers gathered and waving Ukrainian flags on March 8, in Simferopol, Ukraine.

“For many years it has served as a theater and was a platform for independent art projects, educational lectures, and film screenings,” said Galina Dzhykaieva, art director of “Karman.”

“The film society functioned in the art center. We often showed sociocritical documentary films. Once when watching the film about [former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych private residence] Mezhyhiria, we were attacked and the screening of the film was disrupted. When the events unfolded in Crimea, only medical courses were held here  –  later I found out from an FSB worker that it was being labeled as ‘terrorist activity led by Oleg Sentsov.’ I said without hesitation that that version of the investigation was nonsense. We had an informal meeting with the FSB, they gave me some papers to sign, but I refused. I was hinted about possible pressure, and finally was invited to the official meeting of the FSB. I did not attend it, I managed to leave.”
Dzhykaieva continues: “I met Oleg and Hennadiy ​in the spring. I wasn’t familiar with Chyrniy and Kolchenko, although it is possible they were our spectators and attended the theater. Hennadiy is a perfectionist, even naïve sometimes, openly criticizing the situation. Regarding Oleg, I remember very well his words that run quite opposite to his charges. He emphasized that there are no radical actions needed in Crimea, because here are the military and the situation is completely different from than one which was on the Maidan. Only peaceful actions are possible.”

What are Sentsov and Kolchenko accused of?

According to the prosecution, Sentsov supported the idea of changing the authorities in Ukraine in 2014 and went to Kyiv as a member of Automaidan to take part in the protests together with the Right Sector. There he accepted the ideology of the Right Sector.

Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko during a court hearing in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. August, 2015. Photo credit: hromadske radio

Two fires occurred in Simferopol in April 2014. On April 14, the office of Russian Unity party was burned. The office of the Russian Community of Crimea was located at the same address (11/2 Karl Liebknecht St.). On the video from surveillance cameras, which were later demonstrated in court, two men in hoods are seen approaching the building at about 4 a.m. One poured something on the door, the other threw a cigarette butt. Both ran away, but the flame didn’t start. In a few seconds, one of them came back, lit the door with the lighter, and disappeared back into the darkness. The door caught fire instantly. In a few minutes, the fire was extinguished by guards. The door was the only thing that suffered. The total amount of damage totaled 30,000 rubles (about 8,500 hryvnia). The investigation will qualify this arson as a “terrorist attack.”

A makeshift “headquarters” of Crimean “self-defense” was located in the office of Russian Unity in the midst of the annexation of Crimea. Those who opposed the actions of Russia or wore Ukrainian symbols were brought here for “precognition”. On March 11, 2014, Ukrainian activist Mykhailo Vdovchenko was taken here to be beaten and interrogated because he was caught in the center of Simferopol with the Ukrainian flag.

“I was returning from the protest with the Ukrainian flag. I don’t know, I felt calmer with it. In one of the streets I saw about 30 young men in leather jackets  –  they were walking two by two and two with the leader in front. He looked like a military man. He saw me from a distance and shouted ‘Step aside!’ and I did so. He shouted, ‘No, run away from here! Or else you’ll be killed!’ The guys took out batons from the leather jackets. I was scared and ran away. But they caught me and asked me to throw away the flag. Then they began to beat me. Thank god I was wearing my hat that day.”
“Then someone said: ‘Take him to our place’. I was taken to the office of Russian Unity. On the way there, they were telling me that they would pull out all my nails and teeth, would torture me. ‘Sing the anthem of Ukraine!’ They brought me to the black gate of the office and I realized that this was the last opportunity to escape. I struggled and broke free. They chased and beat me down and I shouted to 2 policemen passing by. Actually there were a lot of people, but only one woman came to me. ‘Why are you beating him?’ At this moment a woman named Alina, a curator in Crimea, went out of the gate. She said to the woman that I was provocateur, was tearing up passports. There was a rumor about provocateurs visiting people’s apartments and asking to see passports, only to then tear them up and run away, in such a manner taking away the right of people to vote in the referendum. And in Crimea people believed this."
“I was brought to the yard where they started interrogating me again. They tried to find out if I knew someone from the Right Sector, who pays their activists money, and so on. But I could not tell them anything on it. Alina took picture of me and then she received a message that said ‘he tells a lie’. She went away. Later the doctor visited me and gave me some water. There were a lot of people with and without weapons, some in uniform, but all of them were unmarked. They wondered who I was. Then I was taken to one of the military commissariats and was tortured there for nine days," said Mykhailo Vdovchenko.

The office of the Party of Regions at 7 Aksakov Street was burnt during the night of April 18, 2014. Oleksandr Bochkarev, a former commander of the so-called Crimean militia, represented the United Russia party and had already managed to move into the office by that time. In court, he was presented as a victim of the incident.

According to the documents, the office still belonged to Party of Regions. However, Bochkarev insisted that the “regionals” had joined the United Russia party providing them with their property and office. So having already torched the office of Party of Regions, the attackers intended to cause damage to United Russia. The court asked Bochkarev if he had seen representatives of the Right Sector in Crimea. "I’ve caught them several times. They came from Transcarpathia. Who else could it be?" he answered.

The kitchen in the office suffered the most damage from the fire. The damages amounted to 200,000 rubles (about 57,000 hryvnia). The arson will be qualified by investigators as a “terrorist attack.” The investigation established that Chyrniy and Afanasiev took part in arsons, as well as Zuikov and Borkin, whom they failed to arrest. Three of them confessed to involvement in arson. Afanasiev and Chyrniy, having made a deal with the investigation, would say that Sentsov was the brains behind the plan for the arson. Kolchenko will say that he wanted to cause harm to the party “that allowed Putin’s army to enter Ukraine”. In the final speech, the prosecutor will emphasize that“in the names of both offices were the words 'Russia' or 'Russian'.”

Photo credit: Anton Naumliyk/(RFE / RL)

The only thing that confirms Sentsov’s relation to the arson of the offices is the testimony given by Afanasiev and Chyrniy, under their agreements with the investigation. Later, Afanasiev would refute his words. And Kolchenko continues to repeat that he has never received any such orders from Sentsov.

The defendants are accused not of arson, but of participation in the terrorist group led by Sentsov. According to the indictment, Sentsov is guilty of “supporting the idea of changing the authorities in Ukraine in 2014 whereby  as a member of Automaidan  he traveled to Kyiv to take part in the protests together with the Right Sector. There he accepted the ideology of the Right Sector, established contacts with its leaders, and later received a proposal to form a unit of Right Sector in Crimea in order to destabilize the situation there."

"Was Oleg truly related to the Right Sector? First, Automaidan was not connected with the Right Sector," commented Automaidan activist Oleksii Hrytsenko. “When we were in captivity in Crimea, we were also asked about the Right Sector. And even in that awful situation when they said that Automaidan was a radical wing of the Right Sector, I couldn’t stop laughing. Well, it turns out that Sentsov accepted their ideology? Did they even have an ideology?"

Later the defense lawyers will insist on attaching a certificate from the Right Sector signed by Dmytro Yarosh to the case file. It says that neither Sentsov nor Kolchenko are the members of the organization Right Sector. In Russia, Right Sector is recognized as a terrorist organization. The judge will note that any document signed by Dmytro Yarosh is a manifestation of contempt of court.

Two official statements from The Right Sector clarifying that Sentsov was never a part of the organization

All the defendants in the case at the moment of arrest are citizens of Ukraine. Both Sentsov and Kolchenko insisted that did not receive Russian citizenship and demanded a meeting with the consul. The judge has decided that it will only be possible after the verdict. Both Afanasiev and Chyrniy have Russian passports, but neither of them said whether it was a part of the deal with the investigation or not. Only Afanasiev said in court that the decision to take Russian citizenship had been his own decision.

Prosecution witnesses

Discussing the annexation of the Crimea and plans to blow up the monument, the men periodically switch to more interesting topics for themselves: paganism and spirits. Pirogov stops from time to time in the woods, collecting herbs, drinking water from streams and discusses the benefits of drug plants. The name of Sentsov was not mentioned in any of these film recordings.

Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko during a court hearing in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. August, 2015. Photo сredit: Mediazona

According to the defense, all the prosecution witnesses can be divided into three groups: those who had a criminal record, those who collaborated with the FSB somehow (or were members of the intelligence service), and the “respectable citizens” who participated in the pro-Ukrainian rallies or activist’s meetings. Those “pro-Ukrainian activists” appeared as witnesses much later from the first two groups. Some of their testimonies contradict themselves or previous evidences. The text below is a summary of a few of them.

“Criminal past”

The Rostov-on-Don court heard testimony by Yaroslav Burakovsky via video. Burakovsky spoke from a Crimean prison, where he was being held for theft. He was imprisoned for the same crime at least twice before.

According to his latest testimony, in February 2014, he gets acquainted with Afanasiev, Chyrniy and Enver Asanov in the social network Vkontakte, in the community called "Right Sector Crimea”. After a short time he rents a room in Asanov’s apartment. Burakovsky claims that there he witnessed meetings of Sentsov and others involved in the case. The investigators failed to apprehend Asanov. Burakovsky also says that he heard how Sentsov called for “radical actions to push Russian government to vote for exclusion of Crimea from Russia” –  this is how the prosecution quoted Burakovsky’s testimony.

In testimony recorded in May of 2014, Burakovsky never mentioned the social network group called “Right sector Crimea”, he also confirmed that he met Asanov in a bar. During the investigation of Asanov’s house, they found helmets, T-shirts with red crosses, and medicines. They also found a Makarov pistol, it supposedly presents DNA evidence that matches with Sentsov. The director, in his turn, noted that during the interrogation he was beaten and they put a gun in his mouth.

“Agents of the FSB”

Witness Alexander Pirogov, an old friend of Chyrniy, can be attributed to both groups. Pirogov has a nickname – Ping (from “Penguin”), and he has two previous convictions. When Chyrniy suddenly asked him to make explosives, he considered the request. According to the case file, Pirogov’s considerations did not last long – the very next day he already wrote a statement to the FSB about his friend’s intention to commit a crime. In the FSB, Pirogov was invited to take part in an “operational experiment” and was given a hidden camera. All his future meetings with Chyrniy, Ping had to record on video, but “not to provoke him to any action.”

It is thanks to Ping, that this case has not only material evidence but also a wonderful movie intended to prove Chernyi’s idea to blow up the Lenin monument. Recordings of the meetings between Pirogov and Chyrniy have very good quality of the video, you could hear and see both Chyrniy and Pirogov, from time to time you can hear birds, trees noise, and the conversations of passersby. Discussing the annexation of the Crimea and plans to blow up the monument, the men periodically switch to more interesting topics for themselves: paganism and spirits. Pirogov stops from time to time in the woods, collecting herbs, drinking water from streams and discusses the benefits of drug plants. The name of Sentsov was not mentioned in any of these film recordings.

In one of the first meetings, Chyrniy immediately explains that he wants to organize his “own action” to blow up the monument apart from those who burned offices. He calls them “idiots”, criticizing them for incompetence and lack of activity. Undermining the monument and other explosions would make a serious impression. Ping asks Chyrniy if the people helping him are related to the Right Sector. His answer is: “No. The one who is a kind of a leader says that he is [from] Automaidan."

Ping will then fly to Rostov from Simferopol. The FSB will cover travel costs, accommodation and per diem. A separate case file shows secret witnesses of the FSB. In court, they were behind closed doors, and instead of their real names, they used pseudonyms.

“Respectable citizens”

Photographer Alexandra Komanska was also questioned via video from the Crimea, on the same day as Burakovsky. Komanska claims that she had several meetings with Sentsov and other persons involved in the case. According to her, “Sentsov called for action aimed at the withdrawal of Crimea from Russia.” When asked the judge what kind of action, Komanska adds: “Undermining the Lenin monument and eternal flame.” In April, she mentioned only the statue of Lenin. She speaks very actively, sometimes ahead of questions from the prosecutor. She says that she did not share the radical views of Sentsov, Afanasyev, and others, and decided to stop communication with them as soon as possible.

In February 2014, in the midst of annexation, Russian news site Slon.Ru published online comments of the situation on the Crimean peninsula. Among other comments there is the following quote from Komanska: “I am Ukrainian. I think that people went to Euromaidan because the government passed the acceptable norm. Any separatist appeals need to be punishable by law. For 23 years Crimea was part of Ukraine, and so it will remain."

Physical evidence

There are masks, gloves, Ukrainian flags, smoke bombs, medicines, air pistols and even a hand grenade among the evidence. The prosecution says that they seized the hand grenade in the house of Asanov.

In Chyrniy’s apartment, they discovered a scarf with symbols of the Right Sector – it is one of the most valuable findings of the investigation. In Sentsov’s house, the investigators took several DVD movies, including “Ordinary Fascism” by Mikhail Romm and “Third Reich in color” by BBC. Prosecutors mentioned those films separately. At one of the last hearings in the court spoke film critic Anton Dolin, who argued the artistic value of both films. When the prosecutor asked whether any part of these films could be used to promote right-wing views, Dolin answered: “As part of any other product. For example, 'Winnie the Pooh'." After Dolin’s speech, the judge decides to remove the films as evidence in the case file.

In Sentsov’s apartment, they also find train tickets (Kyiv-Simferopol and Kyiv-Simferopol) and money: about 65,000 hryvnia. According to investigators, Sentsov received money from Anatoliy Hrytsenko through his son and Automaidan activist Oleksiy. That’s according to Anafanyev’s testimony, which he later denies. According to Sentsov, the money was intended for the filming of “Rhinoceros”.

Why Sentsov?

From the beginning of these arrests, investigators aggressively pursued revelation of “the boss”. They sought the names of the “customers” and “managers”. They tried to get these names from Sentsov. This feverish search for “the boss” suggests that the Russian investigators did not understand the nature of such protests as Maidan – that is their horizontal structure, the absence of a clear hierarchy and strategy. In the place of Sentsov could be any activist, say friends of the director. But they targeted him.

“Oleg was really noticeable, he openly helped our militaries in Crimea, supporting their families there,” said Oleksiy Hrytsenko. “He was at Euromaidan. I remember he was presented as a director from Crimea. He immediately joined our work. He was mainly engaged in the office work, he was responsible for the organizational part, composed of alternating schedules, for example. Here we always had some sense of order."

His two children are waiting for Sentsov in Simferopol – the youngest son needs special attention, the boy has autism. Sentsov’s cousin Natalia attempts to support him in the court. At the moment she can’t receive letters from him, as well as she can’t receive anything from him. “From other people he gets letters, and they receive letters from him. I am prohibited from delivering any letters, not even photos of children," she said.

At the last hearing, Natalia managed to meet with Vira Savchenko, sister of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko who was imprisoned in Russia at the time. Vira came to the court in a vyshyvanka (traditional Ukrainian dress) to support Crimean prisoners, but the guard did not let her in. Larysa Kolchenko, Oleksander’s mother, silently contemplates Vira and Natalia. For every meeting in Rostov, she travels from Simferopol, each time trying to bring food not only to her son but also for Oleg Sentsov.

Afterword: investigation in Ukraine

In 2014, Ukraine opened criminal proceedings based on the fact of the kidnapping of the defendants. The investigation is still underway. The Crimean Prosecutor’s Office, which is located in Ukraine and is now part of Ukraine's General Prosecutor's Office, leads the process. The main objective of the investigation is to push a legal case against all investigators, prosecutors, judges and others involved not only in the kidnapping and deportation of Ukrainian citizens outside the state but also into torture, illegal detention, threats and other crimes. Lawyers say most of these officials should also be prosecuted under the article “treason.”

This is an updated version of the original article published by Hromadske International on August 25, 2015.