Sunday, May 20, 2018
Sentsov, Ukrainian in Russian Prison, Declares Indefinite Hunger Strike
Ukrainians have been down this torturous path many times during the past millennia as Russia has threateningly hovered over the nation, voraciously clawing at its independence, sovereignty and national identity.
Fortunately, the Ukrainian nation has been blessed with many heroic role models. The men and women in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, who today are heroically defending their country and nation from Russian invaders, are the visible war heroes that are leaving a valiant legacy for the younger generation.
Oleh Sentsov, a 42-year-old Ukrainian filmmaker who was born in Crimea, is this generation’s gallant symbol of resolute national, non-military resistance to Russian aggression and oppression.
Sentsov’s fate is part of the never-ending chronicle of Russia’s cruelty against Ukrainians, destruction of their culture and language, and its mission to subjugate regardless of who is in power in the Kremlin.
Looking back the pages of recent history, the 2014 Winter Olympics held in Sochi, Russia, came to an end on February 23. Five days later, Russia declared war on regional peace and security. Moscow escalated achieving its prime objective of re-subjugating Ukraine by invading and occupying the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, an act that was not impulsive but rather required months of logistical preparations while Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin junta cynically smiled and shook hands with gullible global leaders. You recall the scene from “The Godfather,” when Michael Corleone renounced satan in church while his hoods killed his enemies.
Thus began the Russo-Ukraine War of 2014-18, which also enveloped eastern Ukraine. The United Nations and the free world have condemned Moscow’s belligerence.
Sentsov, a Ukrainian and Crimean patriot, immediately joined the civilian movement to oppose Russia’s illegal occupation of his native region, which culminated with Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
Sentsov and his colleagues organized a massive pro-Ukrainian unity demonstration in Simferopol in hopes of preventing Russia’s plans for an illicit coup d’état. Civil activists observed that the event was poignantly described as a Day of Crimean Resistance given the huge price paid by the Crimean Tatar leaders and other Ukrainians who peacefully stood in defense of Ukraine on that day and in subsequent weeks and months as Russian soldiers and paramilitaries seized control of Crimea. Much like Nazi Germany seized Poland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Scandinavian nations and other countries.
The list of activists and those arrested is long, and includes Sentsov, human rights defender Emir-Usein Kuku and a number of Crimean Tatars active in the Crimea Solidarity movement, which arose to help the ever-increasing number of political prisoners in Crimea and their families. It also includes three other opponents of Russia’s invasion and annexation: civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko, Hennadiy Afanasyev and Oleksiy Chyrniy. All four were held incommunicado for up to three weeks, first in Simferopol, then in Moscow, almost certainly to hide the torture marks, according to their colleagues.
They were officially charged with terrorism and brought to a typical Russian show trial – or kangaroo court as it has been known throughout history. Stalin used them effectively to kill his opponents. The Crimean defendants’ case was one of the first of many attempted fake trials of Ukrainians, and was clearly aimed at justifying Russia’s invasion and occupation of Crimea by depicting Ukrainians as terrorists.
There was undeniably no evidence of terrorism and plans to commit violent crimes against the occupying regime. Nonetheless Moscow needed not only to punish them but to remove them from public view. But by incarcerating and exiling them, as it’s done many times in the past, the Kremlin ironically turned them into visible heroes, beacons for today’s generation.
The FSB, the KGB’s successor, had imposed a regime of total secrecy until the trial of Sentsov and Kolchenko began in the summer of 2015. It became clear from the first day that the prosecution had no real evidence so on August 5, 2015, the Memorial Human Rights Center declared both Sentsov and Kolchenko to be political prisoners. It later made the same statement about Afanasyev, who was returned to Ukraine as part of an exchange, on health grounds.
Russia had also unlawfully declared that both men automatically became Russian citizens with its occupation of Crimea, and denied them access to the Ukrainian consul and their rights under international law.
Sentsov spoke of the torture he was subjected to since the start of his illegal incarceration. He was told by the FSB that if he didn’t give testimony and confess as it demanded, he would be sentenced to 20 years and “rot in prison.”
Sentsov was recognized for his bravery under fire by being awarded the Andrei Sakharov Award for Courage, along with two other Ukrainians facing Russian persecution: journalists Mykola Semena and Roman Sushchenko. The award is well-deserved in all cases but regarded as especially fitting given Sentsov’s powerful final address to the kangaroo court in Russia. In those final words that will resonate loudly for many generations, Sentsov emphasized that he was not asking the Russian court for justice, as “a trial by occupiers cannot be just.”
In order to silence Sentsov and keep him isolated from public view, Russia transferred him to an infamous prison north of the Arctic Circle, as far from journalists and foreign representatives as the Kremlin could achieve. Apparently that notorious penal venue did not disappear with the death of Stalin and the Soviet Union. Putin keeps its gates open today and global leaders should remember that as they prepare to shake hands with him.
The sentences imposed on Sentsov, Kolchenko, Ruslan Zeytullaev, Mykola Karpyuk, Stanislav Klykh and many other Ukrainians are comparable to those used to silence opponents throughout Russian history. Furthermore, they are applied against Ukrainians held thousands of kilometers from their families, in most of the cases because Russia wants to silence protest during its occupation of Ukrainian territories.
In addition to the Sakharov award, Sentsov was honored with the PEN America / Barbey Freedom to Write Award in 2016. In an enormously emotional letter in response to the award, Sentsov wrote:
“The last time I went to the Maidan, where people had already begun perishing, my mother said, ‘Why are you going there? You have two children!’ I answered that it was precisely because of that that I was going there—I don’t want them to live in a country of slaves. We won then, but it proved not to be the end. And the struggle continues, but now without me. I’m in prison and like any prisoner it is very difficult for me to answer a simple childish question: ‘Daddy, when are you coming home?’”
Sentsov is the father of two. His actions were intended to defend Ukrainian Crimea and Crimean Tatars from Russian subjugation but also to ensure that future Ukrainian generations would live in an independent Ukraine.
In 2016 his suffering was compounded when his wife decided to divorce with him, as the status of a wife of a political prisoner in Crimea deprives her of the opportunity to take out a mortgage and to buy a home for herself and two children.
Russian persecution of Sentsov pushed him to the precipice. His latest protest against Russian repression is a hunger strike that he began on Monday, May 14, in defense not of himself but of his fellow Ukrainian political inmates. Russia has imprisoned 64 Ukrainian national activists in occupied Crimea and Russia.
According to his lawyer, Sentsov had been preparing for the hunger strike for about a month and a half by refusing to receive food parcels, avoiding the prison colony’s store, consuming thin broth and the minimum amount of food, preparing his body for starving. Sentsov sent a letter to the chief of the colony about his protest and the conditions for ending it.
In a handwritten Russian and Ukrainian-language note, he declared: “I, Oleh Sentsov, a Ukrainian citizen, sentenced illegally by a Russian court and held in a prison colony in Labytnangi, have declared a hunger strike, beginning 14 May 2018. My sole demand is the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners held in the Russian Federation. Together and to the end. Glory to Ukraine!”
Ukrainian political prisoners always brought something of their own personal protest to the Russian concentration camps but throughout the ages all of them have shared the same battle cry “Glory to Ukraine!” – “Slava Ukrayini!”
Sentsov’s plight in Russian incarceration in the second decade of the 21st century harkens back to the 1970s, when an earlier generation of Ukrainian patriots fell victim to Russian repression.
Words by Valentyn Moroz, who spent 145 days on a hunger strike, at the conclusion of his trial still resound: “This is a heavy burden. To rot behind bars is not easy. Yet to have no respect for oneself, is even more difficult! And so we will fight! There will be a trial and all will begin again: new protests and petitions, more news stories for the world radio and press. Interest in Moroz’s writings will increase tenfold. Fresh fuel will be poured onto the fire - the very same fire you are trying to extinguish! Even this statement is subversive. But do not blame me for this ‘crime.’ I was not the one to jail Moroz. It was not I who threw the boomerang.”
Vasyl Stus’ words also come to mind: “I do not know when death will come for the others, but I personally feel it approaching. How good it is that I have no fear of dying.”
Stus was the fourth Ukrainian national activist to die in Soviet Russian custody in 28 months. His death followed that of his fellow Ukrainian Helsinki Group member Oleksiy Tykhy, by Yuriy Lytvyn, who committed suicide while serving his fourth term in prison, and by Valeriy Marchenko, whose kidneys failed him soon after he was sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp.
Just like Sentsov, who couldn’t tolerate Russian aggression, persecution and occupation, so too couldn’t Stus who declared: “To be a Soviet citizen means to be a slave. I am not fit for such a role. The more I am tortured and abused, the greater is my resistance to my slavery and to the system of abuse of a man and his elementary rights.”
The US Department of State has urged Russia to immediately release all Ukrainian political prisoners. Spokesperson Heather Nauert stated on Twitter: “The United States stands with Oleh Sentsov and calls on Russia to release all Ukrainian political prisoners immediately.”
Sensing the perilous situation faced by Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin declared at a recent ministerial session of the Council of Europe that he’d start speaking about the Ukrainian hostages of the Kremlin. “It’s not about politics anymore, it’s about the lives and destinies of people. Oleh Sentsov has declared an indefinite hunger strike demanding release of all Ukrainian political prisoners held by Russia. Volodymyr Balukh, Uzeir Abdullaev, dozens of others in critical conditions, tortured by the Kremlin. Raise your voice to stop the Kremlin's tyranny!”
Indeed, we, in the free world, must also raise our voices to stop Russia’s tyranny.
Show your support for Ukrainian political prisoners by sending them a letter, which they regard as “a breath of freedom.”
Letters of support to Sentsov should be addressed:
РФ, 629400 Ямало-Ненецкий автономный округ, город Лабытнанги, улица Северная 33.
Сенцову Олегу Геннадьевичу, 1976 г.р.
[Russian Federation, 629400, Yamalo-Nenetsky autonomous okrug, Labytnangi, Severnaya St, 33
Sentsov, Oleh Hennadievych, b. 1976]
Letters to Oleksandr Kolchenko should be addressed:
РФ, 456612, Челябинская обл., Копейск, ул. Кемеровская, 20.,
Кольченко Александру Олександровичу, 1989 г.р.
[Russian Federation, 456612, Chelyabinsk obl., Kopeisk, Kemerovskaya St, 20
Kolchenko, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich, 1989]
Inform your senators and congressmen about the plight of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia and ask them to demand that Russia immediately release them and evacuate its invading army from Ukraine.
Sports fans, soccer officials and players, and sponsors bear in mind the kind of country and regime that you are supporting by attending the World Cup 2018. Respect yourselves and Ukrainian political prisoners by boycotting the tournament.