High-Profile Russian Trials Bring International Criticism

August 29, 2015

In one of several high-profile cases that have drawn international criticism, a Russian military court has sentenced a Ukrainian film director to 20 years in prison for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks in Crimea.

The cases have provoked protests from human rights groups and Western governments, including the United States.

As the sentence was being read Tuesday for the filmmaker, Oleg Sentsov, and his co-defendant, Oleksander Kolchenko, they laughed derisively and began singing the Ukrainian national anthem.

From the beginning of the trial, Sentsov, 39, rejected the authority of the military court in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

“I don’t consider this court a court at all,” he said.

In his final statement, Sentsov quoted the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, who said that cowardice is “the greatest sin.”

Sentsov was accused of leading a terrorist cell that allegedly plotted attacks in Crimea after the Ukrainian region was taken over by Russian troops in February of last year. Russia annexed the territory shortly afterward, a move not recognized internationally.

Prosecutors said Sentsov’s group planned to blow up a statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin and a monument to Soviet soldiers from World War II.

Human Rights Groups Criticize Verdict

“We are talking about a man against whom the prosecutors had no criminal evidence, no evidence of his direct involvement in any criminal acts,” says Tanya Lokshina, director of the Russia Program for Human Rights Watch in Moscow.

Lokshina says the charges against Sentsov were trumped up, but that even if they were true, the sentence of 20 years in prison was disproportionately long.

Sentsov’s co-defendant, Kolchenko, 25, confessed to two arson attacks that caused minor damage at pro-Russian organizations in Crimea and was given 10 years in prison.

Sentsov’s supporters say he was targeted because he is a high-profile figure, an up-and-coming film director who attracted a lot of attention with his 2011 debut Gamer, about a Ukrainian teenager who wins big at a video game championship.

Last year, more than a dozen noted film directors and producers, including Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, wrote an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling for Sentsov’s release.

Sentsov’s conviction was based on the testimony of two other defendants, who said he was their leader in the terrorist group.

“One of these individuals actually withdrew his testimony, saying that he provided the testimony under torture, and the testimony had been entirely false,” Lokshina says.

Sentsov himself said that police had beaten him and threatened to rape and kill him if he didn’t sign a confession.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby condemned the trial and sentencing, calling it “a miscarriage of justice.”

“Mr. Sentsov and Mr. Kolchenko were targeted by authorities because of their opposition to Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea,” Kirby said.

One Of Several Cases

The Sentsov case isn’t the only one that has attracted international condemnation.

Last week, a secret court in Russia sentenced an Estonian intelligence officer, Eston Kohver, to 15 years in prison for spying.

Estonia says that not only was Kohver not a spy, but that he was kidnapped by Russian agents on Estonian soil.

Tanya Lokshina points to a number of harsh sentences in political cases over the past several years, and says they’re designed to send a message to the public, “if you’re discontented, you should keep quiet—or else. You might face very serious consequences.”

The next high-profile trial that’s expected in Russia is that of Nadezhda Savchenko, a Ukrainian army pilot who’s accused of targeting two Russian journalists who were killed by artillery fire in eastern Ukraine last year.

Ukraine says that Savchenko, too, was kidnapped and subjected to trumped-up charges in Russia.

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