When Oleh Sentsov was awarded the European Parliament’s esteemed Sakharov Prize, he found out about it in a penal colony in the Arctic town of Labytnangi, in Russia. This is where the Ukrainian filmmaker is being held today, since a Russian court ruled that he was guilty of “preparing acts of terror” in occupied Crimea and gave him a sentence of 20 years in prison.
The prize in the name of Andrei Sakharov, a Russian physicist who was also a human rights activist, was established by the European Parliament in 1988. It is awarded every year to a person who has been prominent in defending human rights, developing democracy and protecting the rights of minorities. It was first awarded to Nelson Mandela, who had fought for decades against apartheid in South Africa, and soviet dissident Anatoliy Marchenko. Since then, it has been awarded every year to individuals who are fighting for universal values around the world. It has been awarded in then-Czechoslovakia, then-Yugoslavia, Argentina, Bangladesh, Algeria, Cuba, Belarus, and many other countries. This year, Ukraine joined the list for the first time.
The reason for this is quite obvious. Ever since Russia first started its invasion of Crimea, and later in the Donbas, more than 70 Ukrainians have found themselves in prison in occupied Crimea and in Russia. Some of them were sentenced for their political views, such as Oleh Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko. Others were in the wrong place at the wrong time, such as Serhiy Lytvynov, whom Russian propaganda has turned into a “fascist,” accusing him of mass murdering Russian-speaking men, raping women, and killing children, although the case fell apart and no court hearing have taken place – and Lytvynov is till sitting in prison. Russian enforcement agencies have come up with many different accusations: where Sentsov was accused of preparing an act of terror, UkrInform journalist Roman Sushenko was accused of espionage. UNA-UNSO member Mykola Karpiuk was accused of taking part in the Chechen War. Veteran of the current war with Russia, activist Yevhen Panov, was accused of trying to set up sabotage in Crimea.
Meanwhile, the persecution of the Crimean Tatars has been going on since the very start of Russia’s occupation of the peninsula. They are typically accused of belonging to extremist organizations and engaging in terrorism. In the four plus years of Russia’s war, Ukrainians have been sentenced for a total of 240 years, and this does not even take into account the prisoners held in occupied Donbas.
In all this time, unfortunately, Ukraine has not managed to find a working recipe that will get its political prisoners released from behind Russian bars. After all, this is firstly a political matter that, in most cases, is resolved at the level of the two presidential administrations. Despite all the efforts of Ukraine’s government and its activist community, Ukraine has managed to return only about 10 individuals: some were exchanged, some managed to flee occupied territory, and some completed their sentences. But the serious basic problem remains: How do you keep this matter alive, not just inside Ukraine, but in the international community?
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In part this was decided by the prisoners themselves. With the minimum of opportunities available to them, they managed to get the attention of part of the world community by announcing hunger strikes that, for the most part, coincided with the start of the World Football Championships in 2016. For instance, Volodymyr Balukh, a farmer from Crimea who was accused of supposedly stocking ammunition, refused to eat for nearly 8 months. Stanislav Klykh, Oleksandr Kolchenko and Oleksandr Shumkov all also announced hunger strikes. But the most famous in the world community was the hunger strike of filmmaker Sentsov. He announced his intentions prior to the start of the championships with just one condition for Russia: release all political prisoners that the Kremlin was holding behind bars. At around this same time, Ukrainian rights activists launched the latest wave of demonstrations in support of prisoners of conscience that rolled around the entire world. Without having expected this, Sentsov became a symbol of the struggle of Ukrainian political prisoners against Russia.
For the more than 140 days during which the Crimean filmmaker refused to eat, rumors circulated every once in a while that he was about to be released. Several times they were partly confirmed from various sources in Ukraine. However, it never happened. In the end, at the beginning of October, Sentsov had to abandon his strike for a number of reasons, including that he was told they would “turn him into a vegetable” and force-feed him, according to Sentsov’s lawyer, Dmytriy Dinze. The consequences of the hunger strike were heavy. As Dinze explained, Sentsov’s kidneys, liver and heart were damaged, and so far it’s not clear whether he has been properly treated for these conditions. Not long ago, Sentsov was taken from the hospital back to the penal colony in Labytnangi.
Even though the prisoners all remained behind bars, Sentsov managed to do something that four years of effort on the part of activists and the Ukrainian government had not done: to get the attention of the entire world to the fact that Russia was persecuting Ukrainians for their political views. And the result was the Sakharov Prize. The prize was itself was received by his sister Natalia Kaplan. The award itself is unlikely to help Ukrainian political prisoners very much, but it offers a window of opportunity for the Ukrainian government and activists.
“Being awarded a prize of this prestige has drawn international attention not just to Oleh Sentsov himself, but to all Ukrainian political prisoners,” says Oleksandra Matviychuk, coordinator of Euromaidan SOS. “It’s important to understand that this effect is temporary and the question is, how do we properly take advantage of this window of opportunity. For this reason, we organized another wave of the global campaign #SaveOlegSentsov. Demonstrations were organized in Barcelona, Belgrade, Bonn, Brussels, Kyiv, Lisbon, London, Lyon, Munich, Paris, Riga, San Francisco, Warsaw, Washington, and other cities around the world. We are putting out the same demands that have been addressed to the governments of various countries. For instance, we are demanding that a platform for negotiations between Ukraine and Russia be set up in order to get the release of all hostages of the Kremlin.”
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Demands that Russia release Sentsov have already been sent to Moscow by such groups as 128 filmmakers in Austria. The European Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy, Johannes Hahn, also demanded that the Crimean be released to receive his award. In addition, EU foreign ministers unanimously agreed to draft a “European Magnitsky Act” on December 10, which could affect those who fabricated cases against Ukrainian political prisoners. German MEP Rebecca Harms announced that the European Parliament would increase its efforts to get Sentsov released, obviously, implying that a “Magnitsky list” will be drafted.
Regardless of Vladimir Putin’s announcements that he would “discuss” the fate of the “convicted” Ukrainians with the “new government,” Ukraine must continue to find ways to get its citizens released from behind Russian bars: through economic sanctions, through increased political pressure on the Russian Federation, and through its political allies. All the more so that – despite the extremely limited range of instruments that is available to them – its political prisoners are themselves providing opportunities to do so.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj