There are some 70 Ukrainian citizens in Russian prisons serving sentences for political reasons. Who are these individuals, and why are they considered political prisoners?
According to data of several human rights organisations, between 64 and 70 Ukrainian citizens are serving prison sentences in Russia for political reasons.
Most of them have officially been charged with either ‘terrorism’ or ‘theft’.
The most well-known political prisoner of all
The 22nd of June marks four years since Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov was placed in a Russian prison. More than a month ago he announced an indefinite hunger strike, demanding that the Russian authorities release all Ukrainian political prisoners.
Sentsov was convicted in 2014 of participating in the preparation of a terror attack on several cities in the Crimea. The director was sentenced to 20 years in prison. However, he denies the charges brought against him. Many human rights advocates believe that the charges are trumped-up and politically-motivated.
Over the course of these four years, a number of famous and high-profile individuals in the cinema industry and others have spoken out on Sentsov’s behalf. Among them, Russian and European directors Andrey Zvyagintsev, Aleksandr Sokurov, Aki Kaurismiaki, Wim Wenders and American actor Johnny Depp.
The Russian authorities have so far not reacted to the demands that Sentsov be freed.
Ukrainian ombudsman Lyudmila Denisova told journalists that Ukraine does not have concrete information regarding the condition of Sentsov’s health. The ombudsman said that ‘Sentsov is being held in inhumane conditions and is being force fed’.
Sentsov was born in 1976 in Simferopol. His documentary film ‘Gamer’ received several prizes at film festivals. He participated in the Maidan revolution, and has two children.
Before being sentenced, Oleg Sentsov and Aleksandr Kolchenko, who were sentenced under the same charges, were given a chance to speak. They sang the national anthem of Ukraine.
How many Ukrainian political prisoners are there in Russian prisons?
When Sentsov announced his hunger strike, he handed over a list of demands to the prison warden. The list said that Sentsov would cease his hunger strike only when all Ukrainian political prisoners kept in Russian prisons were freed.
However, Sentsov did not list the number or names of these Ukrainian political prisoners.
According to various estimates, there are between 64 and 71 Ukrainian political prisoners in Russian prisons.
Who are these individuals?
According to human rights portal OVD-INFO, there are exactly 71 Ukrainian political prisoners. Their names and what they have been convicted of are also given. OVD-INFO writes that the exact charges for several individuals named in the list are still unknown.
As a whole, Ukrainian citizens are being kept in Russian prisons for the following reasons:
Twenty-eight Ukrainians have been convicted by Russian courts of being a part of the radical Islamist party ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami’. The group is outlawed in Russia and has been deemed a terrorist organisation. However, before Russia annexed Crimea, Hizb ut-Tahrir legally existed there. Many of those who have been convicted by Russian courts were activists who were outspoken against Kremlin policies. The majority of them have been sentenced to five years in prison.
Three other Ukrainians have been convicted of similar crimes for being part of the ‘Tablighi Jamaat’ Islamist organisation. They are also accused of belonging to an outlawed organisation in Russia.
Another three Ukrainian citizens are under investigation for belonging to the ‘Pravy Sektor’ organisation (Right Sector), which is also banned in Russia.
Eight other Ukrainian citizens have been detained and convicted in what is called the ‘Case of Crimean Saboteurs’. They are accused of preparing attacks on several military and civilian targets in Crimea in 2016. The investigation claimed that they were working under the orders of Ukrainian intelligence agencies. The ‘Crimean Saboteurs’ were sentenced to between three to six and a half years in prison.
Two others were convicted along with Sentsov: Aleksandr Kolchenko (ten years) and Aleksey Chyrny (seven years). Kolchenko and Sentsov have spoken out on several occasions about being tortured during the investigation period.
Another five, included on the ‘Sentsov List’, have been convicted for certain posts and comments on social media, and have been accused of ‘extremism and incitement to hatred’.
The reaction of the Russian authorities
Sentsov’s hunger strike, which started just before the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, does not appear to be coincidental. It would seem that he planned to use the increased spotlight on Russia to draw attention to the plight of Ukrainian political prisoners in the country.
On 7 June, during a traditionally-held ‘Direct Line’ with President Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader was asked whether it would be possible to free Oleg Sentsov, or at least have him exchanged for Kiril Vyshinski, the head of RIA Novosti-Ukraina, who was arrested in May 2018 and accused of treason.
Putin answered: “We haven’t considered it yet.”