Russia court jails Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov for 'terrorism'

Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov looks on from a defendants' cage as he attends a court hearing in Rostov-on-Don, Russia on Tuesday where he was  sentenced Sentsov to 20 years in a high-security penal colony.
Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov looks on from a defendants' cage as he attends a court hearing in Rostov-on-Don, Russia on Tuesday where he was sentenced Sentsov to 20 years in a high-security penal colony. PHOTO: REUTERS

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (AFP) - A Russian military court on Tuesday sentenced a Ukrainian filmmaker to 20 years in a prison colony on terror charges in a trial condemned by Kiev, Western rights groups and top film directors.

Oleg Sentsov, 39, was convicted of masterminding arson attacks on pro-Kremlin party offices in Crimea after Russia seized the peninsula from Ukraine in March last year, and for plotting further attacks, including a scheme to blow up a Lenin statue in the main Crimean city of Simferopol.

His fellow Ukrainian defendant Alexander Kolchenko, a 25-year-old activist who also opposed Russia's annexation of Crimea, was sentenced to 10 years after he too was found guilty of taking part in the attacks.

Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter feud over Moscow's takeover of Crimea and its support for the ongoing pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Sentsov defiantly flicked a victory sign, and he and Kolchenko sang the Ukrainian national anthem inside their glass enclosure after the verdict at a court in southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on Twitter: "Hold on, Oleg. The time will come when those who organised the trial against you will find themselves in the dock."

The two men, who have been held in Russia since last May, were tried as Russians, despite never having applied for citizenship.

Sentsov's lawyer Dmitry Dinze said his client would appeal the sentence, which was delivered at one of the only two Russian military courts authorised to hear terrorism cases.

"It's the height of injustice and lawlessness," Russia's TASS state news agency quoted Dinze as saying.

The sentence was condemned by a variety of Western officials, film directors and international organisations.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini criticised the trial as in "breach of international law and elementary standards of justice."

The United States also condemned Sentsov's jailing and called for Russia to immediately release him and Kolchenko.

"This is a clear miscarriage of justice," US State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

Rights group Amnesty International called the long sentences a "blatant injustice after a patently unfair trial marred by credible allegations of torture."

Acclaimed filmmakers from across the globe, including Spain's Pedro Almodovar and Britain's Mike Leigh, have written to Russian President Vladimir Putin expressing concern over Sentsov's prosecution.

Russian film director Andrei Zvyagintsev, whose latest film Leviathan won a Golden Globe, wrote in a letter published in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper Monday that it was "monstrous to jail a young man who is a promising filmmaker".

Zvyagintsev had called for Russia to "either release him or only try him for what you can prove irrefutably".

Sentsov had his debut feature Gamer hown at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2012.

In custody, Sentsov was beaten and threatened with rape and murder and was "suffocated to the point of fainting" with a plastic bag over his head, Dinze said in October.

Investigators refused to open a probe, saying bruises on the filmmaker's back and legs were because he had taken part in sado-masochistic sex before his arrest, the lawyer said.

Defence lawyers said witnesses were tortured to produce testimony implicating the pair in activities involving Ukrainian far-right organisation Right Sector, which is banned in Russia.

Two alleged accomplices have already been jailed for seven years after confessing, but both refused to testify as prosecution witnesses in Sentsov's trial, with one saying he had earlier given testimony under duress. "Both Ukrainians were taken hostage on Ukrainian territory, transported to and imprisoned in Russia, and had Russian citizenship imposed on them against their wills."

Sentsov had his debut feature Gamer shown at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2012.

In his final trial statement, the up-and-coming filmmaker condemned Moscow's rule.

"Your propaganda is very good, but there are also people like you who understand very well that there are no 'fascists' in Ukraine, that Crimea was taken illegally and that your troops are in Donbass," he said of the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine.

Putin flatly denies any involvement in the conflict, and insists that Russian soldiers in the war zone are "volunteers" or off-duty servicemen.

Sentsov and Kolchenko are among 11 Ukrainians held in Russian prisons whom Kiev considers to be political prisoners, according to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.

Last week, Russia sentenced Estonian intelligence officer Eston Kohver to 15 years in prison, although Estonia maintains he was kidnapped at gunpoint on its territory by Moscow's FSB security service.