Still held in Siberian prison, Ukrainian filmmaker Sentsov awarded European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize

by Hromadske Staff
December 18, 2018
This article originally appeared in Hromadske International

UNIAN photo

“…how long you live is less important than how you live. When you die is not as important as how and for what.” – acceptance letter by Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, written from a Siberian prison where he has been beaten, tortured and imprisoned since his arrest May 10, 2014

The European Parliament awarded Ukrainian filmmaker and political prisoner Oleg Sentsov the 2018 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on December 12.

Sentsov’s cousin Nataliya Kaplan and his lawyer Dmitry Dinze traveled to Strasbourg, France, to accept the award on his behalf. Sentsov has been imprisoned in Russia’s Siberian Arctic since his arrest in 2014 for supposedly leading a terrorist organization in occupied Crimea.

Hromadske has translated into English and published Kaplan’s speech from the award ceremony.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am Nataliya Kaplan, the cousin of Ukrainian political prisoner and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.

We were rarely in touch during childhood: we grew up in different families, in different countries, and our four-year age difference seemed like a big barrier.

He studied economics but never went into business. Instead, he was more interested in esports. I always thought that computer games could only be a hobby and he ought to be thinking of more serious things.

But eventually Oleg began to earn money from gaming contests, and he even put together his own team of gamers. They performed well at international competitions. In Ukraine, he became one of the highest-ranked esports players. He gradually began spending less time gaming and more watching films. He realized that he had something to say, and to do that he needed to make a film.

We became friends as adults when Oleg became interested in filmmaking. He was working on his first short film, A Perfect Day for Bananafish, which featured his daughter Alina. For Oleg, this was a learning experience aimed at understanding how a film is made, so he only showed it to close friends.

Oleg always had strong convictions and motivation. He started his film career from scratch – without formal education, experience, connections, or budgets. Gamer, his first feature film, was completed with his own money. Limited finances prevented Oleg from working full time, but he was enthusiastic and resourceful. Actors worked for food – literally. On set, Oleg was able to bring together different kinds of people. Meanwhile other cinematographers were skeptical: they looked at him as an amateur and doubted he could make a great film.

Oleg independently pitched Gamer to various film festivals. It was shown around the world and received positively. Cinematographers began to notice and accept him.

In 2013, he started working on his second film Rhino. Everything was planned and ready to go, but then the Maidan protests started. Oleg dropped everything to take part in the events. He joined the Automaidan, a group of activists with cars, who delivered food, medicine, and other essentials to demonstrators, as well as sometimes blocking the roads. Oleg was responsible for coordinating the members of Automaidan; they called him their office manager. Here he also proved his capacities for organizing and winning people’s trust, as participants were bound by nothing more than a common idea.

We were often in touch during this time, and Oleg was confident in the revolution’s success. He was right. Oleg returned to his native Crimea, which was soon occupied by “little green men,” and Oleg again joined the resistance. When the Russian soldiers who weren’t there surrounded Ukrainian military bases, Oleg brought food, medicine and water to the Ukrainian soldiers and their families who refused to surrender. When the “green men” allowed the Ukrainian military personnel to leave Crimea, Oleg helped them get to the Ukrainian mainland.

In March 2014, Russia applauded and praised Putin for the annexation of Crimea. At this time, Ukraine was counting its casualties. In Crimea, the repressive machine began working. This machine has been working for a long time both in the territories occupied by Russia and within Russia itself, as is evident in the example of Chechnya.

In April 2014, an anti-terrorism unit appeared in occupied Crimea. And once there’s a unit, there have to be terrorists. To this day, Russian law enforcement works on a quota basis, and there are directives about how many [people] you need to catch to get a promotion.

On May 10, FSB (Russia’s security service –ed.) agents entered Oleg’s apartment. His 11-year-old daughter was home and witnessed the search and her father’s detention. As evidence of Sentsov’s terrorist activities, the agents took his return train tickets to Kyiv, a poem written in Ukrainian, his computer, money for work on his new film, and some DVDs. They took two classics from his film collection – Everyday Fascism (Obyknovennyi Fashizm, released in the U.S. as Triumph Over Violence –ed.) and The Third Reich in Color. The FSB agents tried to use these DVDs as proof that Oleg is a proponent of Fascist and Nazi views.

The FSB tied Oleg to the Ukrainian organization Right Sector, which Russian propaganda was using to stoke fear among Crimean residents, saying that it aims to annihilate Russians. How paradoxical, given that Oleg is a Russian-speaker and identifies with Russians.

Three others were arrested with Oleg – historian Oleksiy Chirniy, photographer and lawyer Gennadiy Afanasiev, and antifascist and environmental activist Oleksandr (Sasha) Kolchenko. Chirniy and Afanasiev testified against Oleg. They were tortured, beaten, threatened with violence.

Sentsov was also tortured. According to official documents, he was detained on May 11; in reality, he was taken May 10. For 24 hours, FSB agents tried to beat out testimony incriminating the Ukrainian authorities or other people. When Oleg refused to talk, they said, “We’ll make you an organizer of a terrorist cell and you’ll go to prison for 20 years.” He kept mum and got exactly that sentence.

In court, Afanasiev retracted his original testimony, admitting that it was given under torture. But the court did not investigate his claim, essentially ignoring the crime. It was the same with Sentsov. He testified several times to being tortured and said he had been beaten, suffocated, and received threats of rape with a police baton. But no torture case was opened. Instead, the physical marks from beatings were attributed to Sentsov’s supposed sado-masochistic proclivities.

The first search of Sentsov’s apartment did not yield anything incriminating, so a second search was performed to find a planted canister of kerosene and a pistol. There was no way to link the pistol to Oleg, but the agents found a creative solution. They shoved the pistol into Oleg’s mouth, threatening to shoot. Then they did some tests, which revealed Sentsov’s DNA on the gun. Surprise!

After Oleg was arrested, neither his lawyers nor consuls could find him for two weeks; they were told that Oleg was in transit or in some other detention center. Ukrainian consuls have continually been denied the right to see him on the grounds that [according to Russia] he is a Russian citizen. It seems that after Crimea was occupied, he did not fulfill the official procedure to refuse Russian citizenship and therefore obtained it automatically. Sentsov says, “I am not a serf; you can’t give me away together with the land. I was and remain a Ukrainian citizen.”

At present, Oleg is in one of the northernmost prisons in the world – in Labytnangi on the Yamal peninsula. Sending a man from the south to the Arctic is torture in its own right. Soon after Oleg arrived, his hair began falling out and his teeth began to crumble. But Oleg is someone who won’t give up; he is a fighter by nature. And the only way to fight that he could see was to go on hunger strike. He began on May 14, 2018, on the condition that he would end it when all the Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia and occupied Crimea – at that time numbering at least 79 – were released.

During the hunger strike Oleg’s already compromised health began to worsen precipitously. His loved ones feared for his life, knowing that Oleg would go all the way, to its deadly end. All his organs suffered damage: his liver is enlarged, his kidneys barely function, he has problems with his stomach and intestines, he has arrhythmia and ischemia. His internal organs were not getting enough oxygen, leading to hypoxia, which affected his brain. To avoid being force-fed, Oleg agreed to take nutritional supplements, but his condition still worsened every day.

On October 5, after 145 days of hunger, Sentsov announced the end of his hunger strike, since the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service declared it would begin force-feeding him. Oleg understood that his hunger strike would end either way, but he had the choice to end it himself rather than lie strapped to a table with a tube up his nose.

Over those 145 days not a single Ukrainian political prisoner was released. But this does not mean that Oleg lost. Thanks to his act, the whole world has been talking about Russia’s repressions, and Oleg has drawn a lot of attention to Ukrainian political prisoners. He has already won.

For this special occasion, he has written an address to everyone present, which I will now read to you:

“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.”