Enjoy the World Cup in Russia where you can get 20 years for opposing annexation of Crimea
Fans visiting the 2018 World Cup this summer are to be ‘protected’ by Cossacks similar to those who helped Russian soldiers invade Ukrainian Crimea in 2014. Hardly an accidental choice of thugs considering that the Kremlin has tried to protect itself against criticism by hiding Ukrainian political prisoners like Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko thousands of kilometres away from Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is hoping to keep Sentsov and around 70 other Ukrainians illegally imprisoned in Crimea and Russia out of the focus during the FIFA World Cup in June and July.
It effectively has the International Football Federation’s backing on this. FIFA rejected calls to relocate the World Cup, and now simply repeats its mantra about keeping politics out of football.
This is a craven cop-out when Ukrainians have been imprisoned, many after brutal torture, for peacefully resistance to an invader, for their religious faith or simply because the FSB needed victims for their latest Ukrainian show trial.
The Kremlin has ensured that the most prominent Ukrainian political prisoners, like Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko, are imprisoned beyond the Arctic Circle or in the Far East, and that the Russian population hear either lies from the state-controlled media about supposed ‘terrorists’, or nothing at all about them.
Putin needs the World Cup to be a success both for domestic consumption, and for the international community.
That makes it a good opportunity to seek the release of Sentsov, Kolchenko and other political prisoners and to counter the lies told about them.
The World Cup begins just over a month after the fourth anniversary on Sentsov’s arrest in Simferopol, Crimea on 10 May 2014. The world-renowned filmmaker and father of two was one of four opponents of Russia’s annexation of Crimea who were seized in May: first Oleksiy Chyrniy and Gennady Afanasyev, and finally civic activists Oleksandr Kolchenko.
Russia claims that Sentsov was arrested on May 11, which clashes with Sentsov’s own testimony and the first reports of his arrest . The hours in question are critical since Sentsov has given a consistent account of the torture he was subjected to during that period.
All four men were held incommunicado for up to three weeks, first in Simferopol, then in Moscow, almost certainly to hide the torture marks.
Their case was one of the first of many attempted show trials of Ukrainians, and was clearly aimed at justifying Russia’s invasion and occupation of Crimea by presenting Ukrainians as ‘terrorists’.
The FSB asserted on 30 May 2014 that the four men were members of a ‘Right Sector ‘terrorist’ plot who had been planning terrorist attacks on vital parts of Crimea’s infrastructure. It claimed, for example, that they were planning to blow up railway bridges, although there are none in Crimea. The FSB clearly coordinated their efforts with the state-controlled media who produced videos showing the ‘confessions’ by two of the men, and treating all four as unquestionably guilty.
Sentsov and Kolchenko were sentenced on August 25, 2015, with Sentsov convicted of ‘organizing a terrorist organisation’ (Article 205.4 § 1 of the Russian Criminal Code), and two episodes treated as ‘terrorist acts committed by an organized group’ (Article 205 § 2a). Other articles of the criminal code were added, presumably to justify the huge 20-year sentence, but these were the main ones.
There was literally no evidence of terrorism against any of the men. There was never any proof that a terrorist organization had existed, nor of any plans to commit the grandiose attacks on Crimean infrastructure which the FSB claimed on May 30, 2014.
There were particularly absurd elements to the FSB ‘plot’ such as the concentration on the right-wing and ultra-nationalist ‘Right Sector’. There was nothing to suggest any Right Sector presence in Crimea, nor any involvement by any of the men in it. The charge in the case of Kolchenko was particularly grotesque since the young man is a committed anarchist with pronounced left-wing views.
As has repeatedly proven the case, the FSB’s claims have been largely for the Russian state propaganda machine and then quietly forgotten. By the trials of Sentsov and Kolchenko only two Molotov cocktail attacks at night on the empty offices of two pro-Russian organizations were presented as ‘terrorist acts’.
The incidents are undisputed, but there is no evidence that Sentsov even knew about either of them, and none that he was in any way involved. Similar protest acts in Russia are treated as hooliganism or vandalism, and incur, at most, a suspended sentence.
The four men were denied any contact with lawyers or their families for nearly three weeks. Sentsov and Kolchenko remained adamant from the start that they were innocent and Sentsov, in particular, has given a detailed account of the torture methods used, and the threat that if he didn’t ‘confess’, he would be made the ‘mastermind’ of a terrorist plot and get 20 years.
On August 25, 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years, as the FSB had threatened, Kolchenko to ten years, on the basis solely of two men’s testimony, obtained while the men were held incommunicado and without lawyers. One of the two (Gennady Afanasyev) stood up in court on 31 July 2015, at great risk to himself, and retracted all testimony, saying it had been extracted through torture. Chyrniy refused to testify in court, meaning he could not be questioned.
The FSB had imposed a regime of virtually total secrecy until the trial of Sentsov and Kolchenko began in the summer of 2015. It became clear from Day 1 that the prosecution had no real evidence and on 5 August 2015, the Memorial Human Rights Centre declared both Sentsov and Kolchenko political prisoners. It later made the same statement about Afanasyev (who was later returned to Ukraine as part of an exchange, on health grounds).
Russia has also taken the lawless step of claiming that both men ‘automatically’ became Russian citizens, and is denying them access to the Ukrainian consul and their rights under international law.
There is a model letter here to politicians about Sentsov’s case that could be used, or adapted for action aimed at drawing attention to his case and asking politicians and the media to help put pressure on Russia to release him and Kolchenko.
For those visiting the World Cup games, it is important to realize that freedom of speech and other fundamental liberties are seriously restricted in Russia, and caution should be taken.