A Russian military court has sentenced Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director, to 20 years in a labour camp, the second verdict in less than a week against a foreign national dragged into what critics liken to the Stalinist-era show trials.
The judge in the south-western city of Rostov-on-Don delivered the sentence after declaring Mr Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko, a Ukrainian leftwing social activist, guilty of plotting to organise a terrorist group in Crimea. Mr Kolchenko received 10 years’ hard labour.
The case follows last week’s sentencing of Eston Kohver, an Estonian security agent kidnapped by Russia’s FSB from his own country’s territory, to 15 years in prison on charges of espionage. Ukrainian fighter pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who had been fighting in eastern Ukraine, is also being tried in Rostov-on-Don for alleged murder after she was seized and brought to Russia.
The trials are throwing a spotlight on what Russian legal professionals say is a reversion to the politicised trials and trumped-up evidence common under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in the 1930s — something Russian defendants have been enduring for more than a decade.
Criticising Tuesday’s verdict, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said: “Russian courts are not competent to judge acts committed outside the internationally recognised territory of Russia. The EU considers the case to be in breach of international law and elementary standards of justice. The EU continues to call on the Russian Federation to immediately release Mr Sentsov and Mr Kolchenko and to guarantee their safe return to Ukraine.”
“This has nothing to do with proper criminal proceedings and should not be discussed in terms of criminal justice,” said Kirill Koroteev, senior lawyer at the human rights organisation Memorial. “It is certainly relatively new to the system that this is being applied to foreign nationals, but in general, the absence of justice in criminal cases has long been the rule.”
Amnesty International rejected Mr Sentsov’s trial as “fatally flawed”, noting that credible complaints from the defendants about torture were ignored by the court. “This whole trial was designed to send a message. It played into Russia’s propaganda war against Ukraine and was redolent of Stalinist-era show trials of dissidents,” said Heather McGill, Eurasia Researcher at Amnesty International.
Born in Crimea, Mr Sentsov was heavily involved in Ukraine’s Euromaidan protest movement, which ousted former president Viktor Yanukovich. The 39 year-old director’s first feature-length film was Gamer, a story about a Ukrainian boy who escapes reality by playing computer games.
Mr Sentsov and Mr Kolchenko, along with two other Ukrainians, were arrested in Crimea in May last year after Russia’s annexation of the peninsula and accused of setting fire to the offices of two Russian organisations and plotting other violent attacks — charges they deny. During Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, the two men had sent food to Ukrainian soldiers surrounded in their bases by Russian special forces.
Mr Sentsov has stated that he was tortured and threatened with rape during pre-trial detention, but investigators claimed that he had sado-masochist tendencies and had bruised himself.
While several Russian lawyers have complained of the return of Stalinist-era practices, Mr Koroteev noted that there were differences. Defendants in today’s Russian criminal courts can still challenge accusations against them, he said, and their lawyers will side with them rather than calling on the judge to condemn the defendant, as was common in Stalinist trials.
But he agreed that after a period of relative openness in the 1990s, a round of judicial reform initiated by president Vladimir Putin’s government in 2003 had refocused the criminal justice system on fast, strict verdicts instead of justice. Russian legal professionals say that key to these changes was a new system of assessing judges based on numbers of convictions, giving a strong incentive for guilty verdicts.
When the judge read the sentence in Mr Sentsov’s and Mr Kolchenko’s case on Tuesday, the two defendants smiled and started singing the Ukrainian national anthem. Last week, Mr Sentsov had used his closing remarks for an impassioned plea to the Russian people to overcome its fear and lethargy. “We also had a criminal regime, but we came out against it,” he said. “The same thing will happen with you, sooner or later.”