Ukrainian filmmaker and political prisoner Oleg Sentsov was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament.
Sentsov’s cousin Nataliya Kaplan and his lawyer Dmitry Dinze accepted the award on his behalf today in a ceremony in Strasbourg, France. Meanwhile, Sentsov remains imprisoned in Russia on what Western governments have described as fabricated and politically-motivated charges.
The Sakharov Prize is awarded annually by the European Parliament to individuals or groups “who have made an exceptional contribution to the fight for human rights across the globe.” Established in 1988, it is named for Andrei Sakharov, Russian physicist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. A Soviet dissident and activist for disarmament and human rights, Sakharov was a founding member of the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR in 1970.
Past laureates include Nelson Mandela (South Africa), the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Argentina), and Reporters Without Borders. Sentsov is the first Ukrainian to have won the prize.
During the ceremony, Kaplan read out Sentsov’s acceptance address:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot be present here today, but you can hear my words, even if they are said by someone else. Words are a person’s primary instrument, and often the only one, especially when everything else has been taken away. A word can heal or injure, it can save [someone] or kill [them] with the command “Fire!” There are people whose words can do a lot. There are people vested with authority and opportunities, but they use the power of their words differently. One can call for restraint and surrender, or do the opposite – urge resistance and battle, even when there is no chance of survival, only certain death. But how long you live is less important than how you live. When you die is not as important as how and for what. You could be a simple peasant for 18 years, and then use your words to raise an entire country in resistance; you can accept humiliation and a martyr’s death, and then live forever in history as Joan [of Arc]. Or you could live sumptuously into old age as a bloody ruler, tirelessly proclaiming a stream of mendacious words to “uplift” your people, and even the world’s leaders will shake your hand, not wishing to quarrel with you; but your name will be cursed after death, the word “Bokassa” will be commonly known, among many other such names.
The present moment is rarely fair, but history is always just — with time, everything always comes to stand in its proper place, and things become known by their actual names. Someone is thrown down into the trash heap, amidst the cursing of people now free, along with the broken pieces of self-glorifying monuments. Another, on the contrary, who was persecuted and scorned by nearly all, after death takes an honorable place in the world’s history and his name graces streets, ships, and prizes – like this one. Andrei Sakharov is certainly a person worth emulating, and to be placed even somewhere close to him is too great of an honor for me. He raised the bar very high for accomplishment and talent, intelligence and upbringing, dignity and humanism. But I hope that I will still be able and have time to do something for which I can feel that I deserve this prize. Thank you.”
Sentsov was arrested in his native Crimea in May 2014 and later sentenced by Russian authorities to 20 years in prison on charges of plotting a terrorist act. He endured a hunger strike for 145 days this year, demanding the release of all 79 Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia and occupied Crimea. To this day, none have been released.