May this year marks the fourth anniversary of the arrest of the so-called “Crimean Four.” Oleg Sentsov, Olexander Kolchenko and two other opponents of Russian annexation - Gennady Afanasyev and Oleksiy Chyrniy – were seized by the Russian FSB in May 2014. They were held incommunicado for three weeks, first in Crimea, then in Moscow, before any lawyer was allowed to see them.
August 19, 2015, the North Caucasus Military District Court of the Russian Federation in Rostov-on-Don delivered its verdict in the trial of the so-called “Crimean terrorists”, activists Oleg Sentsov and Olexander Kolchenko, accused of creating a terrorist organization (a Right Sector cell), preparing and committing terrorist attacks. Despite the apparently political nature of the case, the absence of any direct evidence and international public reaction, the court sentenced Sentsov and Kolchenko to 20 and 10 years respectively in high-security prisons. Nine months earlier, Gennadiy Afanasiev and Oleksiy Chyrniy, two other defendants in the “Crimean Four”, were sentenced to seven years in prison. The judgment of conviction was based on a report published back in May 2014 by the press service of the Russian security service, FSB. It stated about the arrest on the territory of the Republic of Crimea of subversive and terrorist group members whose main purpose was “to destabilize the socio-political situation on the peninsula and to influence the authorities of the Russian Federation making a decision in favor of the secession of the Republic of Crimea”. According to the FSB, in order to achieve these goals, the group was going to organize a series of terrorist attacks in major cities of Crimea: Simferopol, Yalta, and Sevastopol. In particular, Russian security claimed that the “terrorist cell” planned to blow up a monument to Vladimir Lenin and the Eternal Flame Memorial, as well as to set on fire a number of United Russia party offices.
Oleg Sentsov, a well-known Ukrainian film director and an AutoMaidan member who had been active in rallies for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, was declared the head of the group which, in turn, was designated as a part of the Right Sector. Olexander Kolchenko, a left-wing activist, convinced anarchist and antifascist militant, was also proclaimed a Right Sector member, no matter how awkward this claim was, and accused of the preparation and perpetration of acts of terrorism.
Neither Sentsov nor Kolchenko pleaded guilty to the charges calling the latter absurd and politically motivated. The evidence provided by the prosecution is largely based on the testimony of two other defendants in the case, photographer Gennadiy Afanasiev and historian Oleksiy Chirniy who had copped a plea bargain and admitted their guilt.
This is of critical importance since there was literally no evidence of any ‘terrorist plot’ with the entire case, and eventually Sentsov’s 20-year sentence and Kolchenko’s 10 years, based solely on the ‘confessions’ of the other two men.
Sentsov described the torture he was subjected to in detail and said that he was told that if he did not provide the testimony demanded, including against Euromaidan and the new government in Kyiv, they would make him the ‘ringleader’ and he would rot in prison.
Afanasyev and Chirniy initially gave “confessions” under torture, and agreed to "cooperate" with the investigators. Both received minimum 7-year sentences in separate trials. Later in court, Afanasyev found the courage to refuse to obey the FSB’s orders and to stand up and state that all previous testimony had been untrue and extracted through torture. Sentsov had, from the outset, described the torture that he was subjected to, but had withstood.
“Cowardice is the main and the worst sin on Earth. Betrayal is a personal form of cowardice,” said Oleg Sentsov. “A big betrayal sometimes begins with a small act of cowardice. Like when they put a bag over your head and beat you and after half an hour you are ready to renounce all your convictions and accuse yourself of anything, to accuse others, just so they will stop beating you. I don't know what your convictions are worth if you aren't ready to suffer for them or even to die,” he added.
Olexander Kolchenko's lawyer, Svitlana Sidorkina, described what is happening as a "clot of falsifications." According to her, the Sentsov-Kolchenko case can go down in history as one of the shameful pages of the Russian court.
Sentsov is a father of two. In 2016, Oleg’s wife decided to divorce with him, as the status of the wife of a prisoner in Crimea deprives her of the opportunity to take out a mortgage and to buy a home for herself and two children.
Oleg directed the 2011 film Gamer, which received good reviews and enabled him to start directing full time. He postponed his work on a new film in order to join the Maidan protests against Yanukovych in 2013. Later Sentsov helped bring food and water to Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea who were barricaded in their bases after the Russian takeover.
Oleg refuses from personal meetings with his mother and children, explaining that, by doing so he would not be able to serve his 20-years sentence due to the homesickness. While being in the Russian prisons, he wrote four film scripts. "Only when the director leaves the prison and shoots the film, we will know what kind of scenario is this," said Sentsov’s cousin Natalia Kaplan. According Kaplan, Sentsov is trying to monitor the situation in Ukraine and Crimea. He is grateful to all people who do not forget about him and write letters to him. However, not all the correspondence reaches him.
Olexandr Kolchenko, who is now 28 years old, has been born in a working-class family. He worked as a loader at the post while studying tourism management at the georgraphic faculty of Tavrida National University in Simferopol (Crimea). He became a supporter of anarchist and antifascist ideas. He staged numerous street protests against manifestations of fascism in the region, participated in clashes with both Ukrainian and pro-Russian far right. He also organized actions of solidarity with Russian antifascists who fell victims of the neo-Nazi terror or government repression, including journalist Anastasia Baburova and Ivan Khutorskoy, murdered by Russian far right organization BORN (Boevaya Organizatsiya Russkih Natsionalistov – Combat organization of Russian nationalists). Kolchenko was an active member of the independent trade union “Student Action” advocating free education, student rights, and autonomy of universities. He was involved to numerous events and public campaigns to protect workers’ rights and the environment. He was supporting the struggles of Crimean Trolleybus employees and protesting against construction of a contaminant port in Crimea.
The highly politicized trial of Sentsov and Kolchenko has resonated not only in Ukraine but also worldwide. Many prominent world organizations advocating human rights and democratic movement (OSCE, European Court of Human Rights, Amnesty International, Open Democracy, No Borders Network, International Federation of Human Rights, FIDH - Center for Civil Liberties Human Rights in Ukraine, European Trade Unions, and the Group of Resistance to Political repressions in Russia) have condemned political persecution of Kolchenko and called for his release.
“It is a torture. They want to break Oleg, to hide him. I am convinced that if we look over the whole specter of political prisoners, Oleg is the most dangerous man for the authorities. Maybe, not only for the Russian authorities,” Tetiana Shchur, member of the public supervisory commission stated. Sentsov and Kolchenko were detained in Crimea, held in remand centers in Moscow, sentenced in Rostov-on-Don, and then transferred to Ural and even to Russian Arctic. According to the estimates of “A halfway around the world transfer: Story of Sentsov’s and Kolchenko’s imprisonment,” in total, during the transfers from one prison to another, they have traveled together a distance of 20 thousand kilometers, which is a half of the distance around the world.