The Release of Oleg Sentsov and the Plight of Those Left Behind
Russia released its most famous prisoner on Saturday. Oleg Sentsov, a forty-three-year-old Crimean journalist and film director, returned to Ukraine after serving five years of a twenty-year sentence. He was one of thirty-five Ukrainian citizens released by Russia in exchange for Ukraine freeing an equal number of Russian citizens. Human-rights groups around the world, activists, and some politicians had been working to draw attention to Sentsov’s case since he was arrested, in May, 2014. In a moment when the U.S. government appears to have dropped human rights from its international agenda, Sentsov’s story shows that a concerted international effort on behalf of one man can still yield results, but it also highlights the limitations of such efforts. Several dozen more Ukrainian citizens, sentenced on equally spurious charges, remain in Russian prisons.
Sentsov was convicted of terrorism ostensibly for setting fires to the doors of the offices of the ruling Russian party, United Russia, in Crimea, and plotting to blow up a monument to Lenin. The prosecution provided no evidence of Sentsov’s participation in either the fires (an established part of radical protests in Russia, usually regarded as crimes against property) or a plot to destroy the monument. The court offered no explanation for why an alleged plot to blow up an inanimate object was viewed as terrorism.
Sentsov was born in Crimea, in an ethnic Russian family. Like most Crimeans, he grew up speaking Russian, but like an apparent minority of them, he identified strongly as a Ukrainian citizen, opposed the Russian occupation. He took part in the revolutionary movement that brought down the Ukrainian President, in February, 2014. At the conclusion of his trial, he declined to ask the Russian court for leniency, because, he said, he did not recognize its authority over him.
In May, 2018, Sentsov declared a hunger strike, apparently in the hopes of drawing enough attention—and enough international pressure—to make the Russian government act before the World Cup, which was held in Russia that year. Sentsov was demanding the release of all Ukrainian prisoners. Russian media covered his hunger strike as if it were a form of blackmail and worse: the act of a terrorist who had taken the Kremlin hostage. (Russian media perfected the art of portraying powerful people and institutions as victims long before the American President popularized the practice here.) Sentsov became extremely ill and was at death’s door for months. He finally called off his hunger strike after a hundred and forty-five days.
Sentsov did not have a list of all the Ukrainian prisoners in Russia—in his prison cell, north of the Arctic Circle, he was in no position to compile one—but several human-rights organizations and the Ukrainian government put together their own lists. (Ukrainian officials and media generally refer to the prisoners using a word that is used to describe prisoners of war, while Russia calls them “inmates,” suggesting that they are felons who fall under Russian jurisdiction.) Probably the most thorough of these lists, which came to be known as “Sentsov lists,” was compiled by the Russian group OVDInfo, and at the time of Sentsov’s hunger strike it contained seventy-one names: people charged with terrorism, espionage, treason, possession of firearms, inciting a riot, membership in an illegal organization, and extremist speech.
Thirty-four of the men on this list were Crimean Tatars, a majority-Muslim ethnic group indigenous to Crimea. Crimean Tatars were persecuted by the Soviet regime, which exiled them to Central Asia, in 1944, and never allowed them to return, fomenting one of the most sustained ethnic-dissident movements in the U.S.S.R. From 1992 to 2013, when Crimea was part of sovereign Ukraine, Crimean Tatars were able to return and establish self-rule in Crimea. After annexing Crimea, in 2014, Russia dissolved the Crimean Tatar legislature and expelled the people’s leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev, who had served time in Soviet camps (he is now the Ukrainian President’s liaison to Crimean Tatars). Dozens of Crimean Tatar activists were arrested on trumped-up charges of inciting a riot, and racketeering, and most of them were charged with being members of a banned organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir. (This international radical organization, which denounces violence, is not considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.) Not only were these men sentenced merely for being members of an organization, rather than for any act they might have committed, but, as OVDInfo noted, for many of them, there was no evidence that they were even members.
In the prisoner exchange this weekend, Russia released those men on the Sentsov lists who were still serving time and twenty-four Ukrainian sailors, whom Russia seized in an attack on Ukrainian vessels, last November. But they did not release the Crimean Tatars (with the exception of the activist Edem Bekirov, who, according to a lawyer who helped broker the exchange, was released for health reasons). The Ukrainian President, Vladimir Zelensky, told Crimean media that trying to free the Crimean Tatars would constitute the “second stage” of the negotiations. Being unknown in the West, Muslim, and smeared with the accusations of terrorism, they literally come second.
In the early nineteen-sixties, Amnesty International pioneered a model of human-rights activism that works to focus the world’s attention on individual cases. The model was continued by Helsinki Watch, in coöperation with Soviet dissidents, in the nineteen-seventies, and picked up by many other groups. The tactic is effective and intuitive: it calls for citizens of democratic countries to see a far-away person as a fellow human being and to understand the details of the injustice done to that person. Mounting pressure can save lives. Sometimes, as in the case of Sentsov, it can even help a dozen other people whose cases are seen as related; in this respect, the Sentsov campaign was an extraordinary success. But the model works only for people who can be made sympathetic and compelling. It is rarely effective in the cases of ordinary people: those who are not journalists or film directors or who don’t necessarily act heroic in court. The terrorist smear did not stick to Sentsov, but it sticks to the Crimean Tatars, because they are Muslim. Their cases got little coverage outside publications devoted specifically to Crimea. Their names rarely appear on the Web sites of human-rights organizations, although Freedom House and OVDInfo consider their cases politically motivated and the charges against them bogus.
Systemic injustice presents impossible choices. Campaigns for individual prisoners came to exist because ordinary citizens are unable to dismantle repressive regimes, whether in their own countries or abroad. They cannot compel governments to stop throwing innocent people in prison. They can only focus on individual people and hope to save them, one by one. Every person freed is a hard-won victory, and a reminder of how many remain unfree.