The Show Trial
On 19 August 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 Alexander 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 Alexey Chirniy, two other defendants in the “Crimean case”, 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. Alexander 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 Alexey Chirniy who had copped a plea bargain and admitted their guilt. However, during Sentsov and Kolchenko’s trial, Afanasiev changed his testimony admitting that he was forced to incriminate himself and Sentsov under threats and torture used by investigation. Ilya Novikov, an independent lawyer provided for Alexey Chirniy, also detected signs of self-incrimination in his client’s confessions, and soon was dismissed from the case by the court.
What happened in Crimea?
On 27 February 2014, Russian troops stationed in Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea seized key government buildings in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, took control of its airport and set up roadblocks at the entrance to the peninsula from mainland Ukraine. Following the takeover, Sergei Aksyonov was proclaimed the new head of the Crimean Council of Ministers in the presence of Russian special forces occupying the Supreme Council of Crimea. At the barrels of guns, Crimean parliament also voted for holding a referendum on the status of the region, i.e. on its secession and absorbing by Russia.
Later, the self-proclaimed authorities of Crimea imposed their control over the police, prosecutors and other branches of Ukrainian security agencies. Russian units, backed by paramilitary formation designating itself as “self-defense of Crimea”, gradually began to seize the military bases located on the peninsula.
On 16 March 2014, the rigged “referendum” on the status of Crimea was held. Official results claimed about 97% of voters supported the accession of the peninsula to Russia. On 20 March, State Duma of Russian Federation ratified the 18 March treaty on accession of the Republic of Crimea to Russia, thus formalizing the annexation.
The reaction of local residents
Upon Russian military began seizing government buildings in Simferopol and other Crimean cities, protests against the occupation of the peninsula set off. Up to May 2014, demonstrations and pickets persisted on the streets of Crimean cities. Protesters against Russian military intervention were not only staging rallies, but also backed the Ukrainian military stationed on the peninsula, ran street graffiti campaigns, assisted journalists and agitated the local population.
The self-proclaimed Crimean authorities reacted harshly to this activity, as well as to any other independent activity. The leaders of the protests had been kidnapped on the eve of the “referendum” and held for weeks in captivity. Activists were beaten and arrested. Reşat Ametov, a Crimean Tatar activist kidnapped by “self-defense” paramilitaries on 3 March, was found dead on 15 March 2014. Many were forced to leave the peninsula.
What did Sentsov, Afanasiev & Kolchenko during the occupation?
From February to March, the residents of Simferopol coordinated via social media and held meetings to discuss plans for protest campaigns against the military invasion. Alexander Kolchenko, Oleg Sentsov and Gennadiy Afanasiev got actively involved in these meetings. Independently of each other, they have participated in many meetings, and were keeping vigil over the Ukrainian military. Sentsov in his car helped to evacuate Ukrainian soldiers to the mainland. Afanasiev participated in the recording of pro-Ukrainian videos.
On the night of 10 May, Oleg Sentsov’s apartment was raided by FSB agents, and the film director himself was arrested. Alexander Kolchenko was apprehended six days later in the downtown of Simferopol while he was hanging out with his friends.
The day before Sentsov’s detention, Alexey Chirniy was arrested at the moment of being handed out a hoax explosive device made by FSB operatives. According to the lawyers, there are all the signs of entrapment to a provocation by FSB in Chirniy’s affair. Gennadiy Afanasiev was arrested on his way to the parade in honor of the Victory Day, on the same day, 9 May.
Supporters of the convicted activists believe that jail sentences of “Crimean hostages” is a revenge for their activity in the protests against the occupation, and an act of intimidation of the Crimean people who disagree with the annexation. Moreover, it’s cultivating an image of the enemy and facilitating atmosphere of fear, of a “terrorist threat” on the peninsula. Thus, none other than the Russian state itself acts as a terrorist, awing the inhabitants of Crimea.
Despite the fact that Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko are citizens of Ukraine insisting on their Ukrainian citizenship in court, never renouncing or deprived of their citizenship, never expressing their desire to acquire Russian citizenship, investigators, as well as judges, officially qualify them as Russian citizens.
Oleg and Alexander have repeatedly protested against the forced imposition of Russian citizenship.
On 24 November 2015 Board of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation upheld the judgment in the Sentsov and Kolchenko’s case unchanged, rejecting the appeal of their lawyers.
Also, the Supreme Court refused to consider a cassation appeal of convicted Gennadiy Afanasiev’s legal defense demanding a full review of the case required after his allegations of torture and breaking the plea.
Afanasiev was transferred from the Rostov region to the Komi Republic. Initially placed in a colony in Syktyvkar, he was imputed with various disciplinary offenses and later transferred to Penal Colony #31 of Federal Service for the Execution of Sanctions in the town of Mikun, Ust-Vymsky District, surrounded by deep taiga forest. There he’s placed in EPKT cell – “Uniform cell-type rooms”, one of the disciplinary punishment types prescribed in the Russian penitentiary system. In fact, it’s an inner prison on the territory of the colony. Afanasiev was set to spend the whole year in this solitary prison ward. As he has complained about the lack of proper medical care, Afanasiev became the first “Crimean hostage” whose release was bargained out by Ukraine.
As of early 2016, there was no precise information about where Sentsov will be convoyed. Two places of Sentsov’s confinement were rumored. Ultimately, his prison was revealed to be located in Yakutsk (Sakha Republic), one of the coldest places in Siberia.
Ultimately, Kolchenko was sent to the infamous Penal Colony #6 of Kopeysk city (Chelyabinsk region) where a major prisoners’ riot against the violation of theur rights occured in 2012. Kolchenko was placed for 15 days to a punishment cell just after his arrival.
Who are the Crimean political prisoners?
Oleg Sentsov (Oleh Sentsov; born 13 July 1976 in Simferopol) is a Ukrainian film director. Having shot two short movies, he released his first feature film, Gamer, in 2011. Sentsov (who once was an electronic sports champion) tells the story of teenage video gamer from Simferopol. The film won several awards at Ukrainian and international film festivals. In 2013, Sentsov went on to shoot his next film, Rhino, but did not have time and opportunities to complete it. Thus far, two collections of his short stories were published, and one his play was performed on stage.
Socially active and staunchly pro-democracy, Oleg was a supporter of Euromaidan protests and participated in the grassroots movement against the corrupt regime of President Yanukovych in Kyiv. He became an activist of the Crimean Hundred and AutoMaidan.
Alexander Kolchenko (Oleksandr Kol’chenko; born 26 November 1989 in Simferopol) is a Crimean left-wing activist. Known by his nickname ‘Tundra’, he was a member of the viable community of local anarchists, socialists, and left-liberals suffocated by the Russian military annexation of the peninsula. Since 2007, Kolchenko has been an active militant of the anti-fascist movement. He staged numerous street protests against manifestations of fascism of all brands in the region. He organized actions of solidarity with Russian anti-fascists who were victims of the neo-Nazi terror and government repression. For his political position, Alexander was repeatedly attacked by far right-wing thugs.
From 2010 to 2013, he was an active member of the independent trade union “Student Action” that advocated free education and respect for the rights of students. As an eco-activist and syndicalist with working-class background (he worked as a loader), he participated in many events and public campaigns to protect the environment and workers’ rights.
Gennadiy Afanasiev (Hennadiy Afanasiev; born 8 November 1990 in Simferopol) was a graduate of Tavrida National Vernadsky University in law; he had a lot of hobbies but his primary occupation was photography. Until early 2014, he was not engaged in social activities. However, during the events on the Maidan and the annexation of the Crimea he joined the movement for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Apart from taking part in street rallies, he was purchasing and delivering food and other essentials to Ukrainian servicemen trapped in their Crimean bases by the Russian army’s ‘little green men’. Gennadiy Afanasiev was released together with another Ukrainian, the 74-year old Yuri Soloshenko, in a prisoner swap with Russia on 14 June 2016. Now he’s active in the campaign for release of his fellow comrades.