In the spotlight: Talk with Oleg Sentsov

18 November 2019

On 13 November, the British Ukrainian Society held a joint event with the Embassy of Ukraine and Amnesty International UK to hear from Oleg Sentsov, one of the most visible former Ukrainian political prisoners who was detained in the Russian Federation for over five years.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, gave a moving introduction that detailed the hardships that Oleg faced and the courage with which he faced them.

For us at Amnesty, there is very little if anything that is as gratifying as meeting somebody that we worked so long and hard for to ensure their freedom and it’s great to have our Russia team here today from the international secretariat who led our efforts. Internationally Oleg is one of the better known former prisoners of our time, not only because he is a film director and writer, but also because of his courage throughout his arrest, the investigation, trial and imprisonment, and this included a hunger strike that lasted for 145 days in which he demanded nothing for himself, but freedom for all other Ukrainians imprisoned by Russian authorities for political reasons. This bravery and determination was recognised by the European Parliament in December last year when Oleg was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. When he was released this September and transferred back to Ukraine as part of the prisoner swap we all rejoiced, and it is quite humbling to think what it took to get Oleg released. Amnesty International was but one amongst many others across the world pressing for his freedom and I know that many of you are with us this today, and we thank you for all you did.

Oleg is a living witness of the human rights abuses committed against many others in Russia, and by Russia in the Crimean Peninsula which it occupied and illegally annexed in 2013. In 2014, like so many others, Oleg was arrested and tortured in Crimea, and in violation of international humanitarian law, he was transferred to Russia tried under Russian law. Like many others, Oleg was brought before a military court, his trial was a complete farce and the charges, which of course he denied, were disproportionate for the accusations made against him. Also like many thousands of others, Oleg was sent far, far away from his family to serve his sentence. His composure and courage during his trial gave hope to many, and I think it’s correct to say that it encouraged even the prosecution’s witnesses, themselves Ukrainian prisoners in Russia, to retract their forced testimonies against Oleg and tell the world about their own torture.

Oleg’s sentencing in 2015 to twenty years imprisonment was the ultimate abuse of justice, but it didn’t stop there. Probably in another attempt to break him and to send a message to others, Oleg was sent to serve his sentence in one of the remotest places in Russia, little known until then and made famous by his presence, a place beyond the Arctic Circle called Labytnangi where in winter there is no daylight for three months. At every stage of this ordeal we campaigned for Oleg, and for Amnesty it wasn’t only about him and other victims of Russian human rights violations in Crimea, but also for those in Russia who were beaten, detailed, abducted by Russian forces or their proxies and tortured, and for the many disappeared who are still missing after all these years.
Perhaps here I should point out that as a human rights organisation, we are campaigning also for human rights in Ukraine. And this includes calling upon Ukraine’s newly elected authorities to address past impunity for police abuse, and investigate secret prisons run by the Ukrainian security services which we exposed in 2016. We also call upon the Ukrainian government to respond effectively to the far-right groups which openly advocate violence and discrimination, and to end attacks against women human rights defenders, LGBTI people, Roma people and journalists.

But back to Oleg, and to his own struggle on behalf of others. You may be aware, Oleg, that your name became synonymous with courage in the face of injustice, but you might not yet know that your story prompted us at Amnesty International to research and record publicly on one of Russia’s most abusive practices: prisoner transportation – the practice of forcing 12, somethings 16, squatting prisoners locked inside tiny train compartments with no light, water or toilet for many hours at a time, travelling across Russia for days and weeks to remote prison colonies, the modern day gulag. Our reports on this prompted the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to work on international standards for prisoner transportation. Today, decisions by the European Court of Human Rights on complaints from Russia about prisoner transportation are far stronger, and thanks to your courage this is, I think, part of your legacy, Oleg.

The Ukrainian Ambassador, HE Mrs Natalia Galibarenko, was invited to the stage to say a few words.

Good evening everybody and thank you for coming to today’s meeting. I wanted to use this opportunity to thank Amnesty International and Amnesty UK not only for organising this event, but and also for their efforts throughout this year to raise awareness about the case of Oleg Sentov and other political prisoners of the Russian Federation, and also for enlisting international support aimed at releasing these people.

Recently 35 people were released as political prisoners of the Kremlin and were returned to their home including our distinguished guest, Oleg Sentsov, but let me remind you that the battle is far from over. We must remain focused and continue to do all that we can to release the remaining prisoners; we estimate that there are around 300 people still detained, both in the Russian Federation and the occupied territories in the Donbas. It is our moral obligation to do everything we can to ensure they return to their families. It’s a miracle that for five years we were advocating for Oleg Sentov and now he is with us again, free and living in Ukraine, and today here in London, but let us not lose sight of the others who are still behind bars. Thank you.

Mr Sentsov gave a short speech through an interpreter, and then took questions.

I would like to say thank you very much to everyone gathered here, for you great work because Amnesty International is one of the biggest and most powerful human rights organisations in the world and has done a lot, along with other human rights groups, for my release and for the release of other prisoners. This work does not conclude with the release of the most famous of the prisoners of the Kremlin because while we are giving each other a hug and patting each other on the back and celebrating here today, many more prisoners, about 100 people, are being kept in Russia, some of them awaiting trial, some of them already convicted and still others waiting to face trial with their sentences predetermined as is the custom there. Just yesterday a group of six Crimean Tatars born in Crimea were condemned in the court in Rostov-on-Don, in the same courtroom where I received my sentence. They received from 8 to 18 years in prison just for their nationality and personal convictions, not for anything they did wrong, just like I never did anything wrong.

That Ukrainian citizens continue to be taken to the same Russian court where convictions have previously been handed down for roughly the same reasons, I would say indicates that the system has not changed. There is no armistice that they want and Russian aggression in Crimea and the Donbas continues. In Donbas at least 200 people are still being detained as POWs including men, women, political activists and even children. They are being kept in conditions far worse than I was, and this is something I always look to remind people of. I will continue raising awareness of this until every last person who has been wrongly detained is released, and I hope that Amnesty International and other organisations will join us in this struggle. Thank you very much.


Event organisers