Russia/Ukraine: Oleg Sentsov freed in prisoner swap
PEN International and PEN Ukraine welcome the release of prominent Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was freed on 7 September 2019 as part of a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine.
‘Oleg Sentsov’s release comes as a great and long overdue relief after five gruelling years away from his loved ones in Crimea spent behind bars on trumped-up terrorism charges. His strength, selflessness and determination in the face of adversity have been an inspiration to us all. The PEN community has been actively campaigning for this wonderful moment for over five years. As we celebrate his freedom, we remember the other Ukrainian nationals arrested in Crimea and still detained in Russia, and call for the immediate release of all those who remain unjustly imprisoned,’ said Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International.
A vocal opponent of Russia’s occupation and ‘annexation’ of Crimea, Oleg Sentsov was arrested in May 2014 and transferred to Russia in flagrant violation of international law, where he spent more than a year in pre-trial detention. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in August 2015 on spurious terrorism charges after a grossly unfair trial by a Russian military court, marred by allegations of torture.
‘Oleg Sentsov is free! Many did not believe that this was possible under the current Russian government, but finally Oleg and 34 other Ukrainians have been released from Russian prisons and are home. For five years we have been talking continuously about Oleg Sentsov, we have been calling for his freedom. And today he is finally home, though his Crimea is still annexed by Russia. But he is at home, in Ukraine, and has already stated that he is ready to fight on. For Ukraine, for its sovereignty, for other Ukrainian political prisoners kept in Russian prisons, in the territories of Donbas controlled by separatists, and in annexed Crimea. But we all know that in the struggle for human rights, for the release of innocently convicted, for the restoration of justice no break can be taken. The fight must go on. The freeing of Oleg Sentsov should give us more hope, strength and perseverance,’ said Andrei Kurkov, President of PEN Ukraine.
Oleg Sentsov quickly became the face of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Despite being subjected to brutal treatment, he kept using his notoriety and resolve in the service of others. In 2018, he spent 145 days on hunger strike, calling for the release of all Ukrainian nationals held in Russia on politically motivated grounds. He was subsequently awarded the prestigious European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Oleg Sentsov’s plight attracted considerable international attention and mobilisation. Hundreds of PEN members across the world actively campaigned for his release by sending appeals to the Russian authorities, taking part in solidarity campaigns and protests, organising film screenings, coordinating petitions, translating, publishing and promoting his short stories, and taking part in social media actions, amongst other things. Before his release, Oleg Sentsov was being held in in the ‘Polar Bear’ prison colony of Labytnangi, in Siberia, thousands of kilometres away from his home and family in Crimea.
PEN International and PEN Ukraine continue to stand in solidarity with Oleg Sentsov and his family in this extraordinary time. The organisations call on the Russian authorities to return all Ukrainian nationals arrested in Crimea and now held in Russia to Ukraine, as required by international law, and free all held solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression.
On 7 September 2019, Russia and Ukraine freed 70 prisoners as part of an exchange, the first to take place since Russia’s illegal occupation and ‘annexation’ of Crimea in March 2014. They included Ukrainian activist Olexandr Kolchenko, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison alongside Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian journalists Roman Sushchenko and Stanislav Klykh as well as 24 Ukrainian sailors taken captive by Russia last year.
For more information about the state of freedom of expression in Russia and the case of Oleg Sentsov, please see PEN International, PEN Moscow and St Petersburg PEN’s joint report entitled Russia’s Strident Stifling of Free Speech 2012-2018.
For more information about the state of freedom of expression in Ukraine, including in occupied Crimea, please see PEN International’s report, Freedom of Expression in Post–Euromaidan Ukraine: External Aggression and Internal Challenges.