After more than five years of detention, and calls from international artists groups and governments, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was freed from a Russian prison today. In what has long been seen as an unjust situation, Sentsov was convicted in 2015 of plotting terrorist attacks and sentenced to 20 years after supporting the 2014 Euro Maidan protests and opposing Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In 2017, he went on a 145-day hunger strike, demanding that Russia release all Ukrainian political prisoners, but not asking for his own release. That same year, he was awarded the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. PEN America today called the release “a long overdue moment of joy and celebration for Sentsov, his family and all those who have fought for his freedom.”
The filmmaker, whose credits include 2011’s Gaamer, was released as part of a swap of 70 prisoners between Russia and Ukraine. According to media reports, planes carrying 35 prisoners from each side landed simultaneously in Moscow and Kiev on Saturday.
Sentsov was arrested by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation at his home in May 2014 and brought to Moscow where he was detained awaiting trial for over a year. When the trial began in July 2015, the prosecution’s key witness retracted his testimony as “given under pressure and duress.” The next month, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years.
Numerous governments and human rights organizations identified the allegations against Sentsov as politically-charged, groundless fabrications orchestrated in retaliation for Sentsov’s outspoken criticism of Russia’s annexation of his native Crimea. Throughout, Sentsov maintained his innocence.
The European Film Academy today wrote on its website: “It is with the greatest joy that we learn that Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian filmmaker who has been imprisoned in Russia for over five years, is finally free and back in Ukraine. Welcome back, Oleg!”
Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s CEO, said, “We are jubilant that Oleg is finally free to reunite with his beloved children and to speak his mind. The spurious case and draconian sentence imposed on Oleg are emblematic of the lengths to which despots will go to silence those who defy them, and the special cruelty they reserve for those who, through the power of writing and art can move others to resist as well. Oleg has always put the broader cause of freedom and free expression above his own plight, including by risking his life on hunger strike last year. As he promised, Oleg remained the nail that never bent. In that spirit of determination, we call on the Russian government to free all political prisoners. We hope that Oleg’s release after a worldwide campaign gives a light of hope to those who continue to face repression in Russia.”
After awarding Sentsov with the Freedom to Write prize in 2017, PEN America led a global campaign for his release. In February 2018, the group organized a Global Day of Action for Sentsov, with rallies, readings and other actions in 24 cities in 16 countries. In June 2018, more than 50 writers, artists and activists including Margaret Atwood, Christiane Amanpour, Salman Rushdie, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Patrick Stewart joined PEN America in signing an open letter to President Putin, demanding his freedom.
In July 2018, PEN America issued a letter signed by dozens of arts and human rights organizations and over 12,500 individuals calling on President Trump to raise Sentsov’s case with Putin in their meeting. Also in July 2018, France’s Société des Réalisateurs de Films (which organizes the Directors’ Fortnight section in Cannes), launched a call in support of Sentsov, with signatories including Todd Haynes, Lucas Guadagnino, William Friedkin, Michel Hazanavicius, François Ozon, Rithy Panh, Lynn Ramsay, Claire Denis and the Dardenne brothers.
Throughout the past five years, the European Film Academy has also been active in raising public awareness. Festivals such as Venice, Warsaw and San Sebastian picked up the “empty chair” idea of including Sentsov on their juries to attract attention. Along with letters sent to Putin and other officals, the EFA joined with the French Directors’ Guild to craft a petition whose signatories included Jacques Audiard, Juan Antonio Bayona, Costa Gavras, Stellan Skarsgård and Venice Film Festival chief Alberto Barbera. Earlier this year, a red carpet protest was staged at the Berlin Film Festival.
Members of the United States Congress, the European Parliament, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and leading Russian intellectuals and cultural figures have all called for Sentsov’s release, as well. So had the U.S. State Department. Sentsov also received the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in October 2018.
Said Jennifer Egan, president of PEN America today, “Oleg’s heroic grit and determination in the face of tyranny and injustice have inspired artists and writers worldwide, who have stood behind him unwaveringly. Today, all of us celebrate his release with his friends and family. And we at PEN America look forward to fighting on behalf of every persecuted writer and artist until all of us are free.”