Oleg Sentsov in prison

On May 10, five years will have passed since Ukrainian filmmaker and writer Oleg Sentsov was arrested in Crimea for allegedly “plotting terrorist acts” following the Russian annexation of the territory where he lived. Sentsov had been an outspoken critic of Russian annexation and helped where he could during Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014, for example bringing food to Ukrainian soldiers and assisting people in escaping the peninsula when it became particularly dangerous.

Recently, the Russian Ministry of Justice denied any responsibility for the injuries Sentsov suffered during his detention, rejecting claims brought to the European Court of Human Rights on his behalf that evidence in the case was obtained through torture.

In February 2017, Sentsov was awarded the annual PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award for his commitment to freedom of expression. A year later, PEN organized a Global Day of Action calling for Sentsov’s release. Four years into his imprisonment, on May 14, 2018, Sentsov began a hunger strike, calling for the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. The strike ended in 145 days later, after Sentsov was threatened with force feeding. Two weeks later, on October 25, 2018, Sentsov was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament, becoming the first recipient of the award from the former Soviet Union in almost a decade.

projection of #FreeSentsov on a building

For New Year’s 2019, PEN America collected messages of solidarity to Sentsov and other imprisoned artists from supporters around the world. Sentsov received 868 messages. Among them was a note from Nobel laureate for literature J.M. Coetzee: “I am writing from Australia to let you know that your brave actions are not forgotten in the wider world. I wish you strength, and hope that your unjust confinement will soon end.”

Norwegian writer Geir Uthaug sent a stanza of a poem by his compatriot, Henrik Wergeland, entitled “The Army of Truth”:

Words, the world so light esteems?
Lower yet,
Words in poet’s stanza set!
O how frail your power seems
To be fighting
For the truth mankind is slighting.

Doris Fulton, from Lynwood, Washington, wrote: “I have read of your courage, and I want you to know that I am a 70 year old grandmother who is reading about your country in order to learn how I can help.”

Voices from Scotland, France, Iran, Germany, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, Bulgaria, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Finland, Brazil, Honduras, Hong Kong, Sweden, Japan, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Russia, Liechtenstein, and beyond joined to express support for Sentsov’s cause and declare their commitment to advocating for his freedom and for freedom of expression worldwide.

PEN America received a message from Sentsov in March 2019, in which he confirmed that he had received the international letters but had not received previous letters from PEN sent through the prison communication system. In this letter, he thanked PEN America for their support, and also expressed thanks to Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón and Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. At the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, Cuarón and Holland wore lapel pins reading “#FreeSentsov.”

Festival participants hold signs in support of Oleg Sentsov

In a response to Sentsov’s letter, Holland wrote, “We really need somebody like you, with your experience and clear view, to fight with us for real values. So yes, we’ll not stop demanding your liberation. We need you, Oleg, maybe more than you need us.” In an interview with PEN America, Holland expanded on the responsibility of artists around the world to advocate for their imprisoned colleagues: “In times like now, when the wave of populism is growing and different kinds of totalitarian regimes strengthen, the filmmakers or writers have to react . . . It is our duty to be the voice of the voiceless.”

As Holland points out, the anniversary of Sentsov’s imprisonment arrives against a bleak backdrop for freedom of expression in Russia and the world. In March, a law was approved by Russian parliament that promises to punish “disrespect for society, the state, and state symbols” with fines and prison time. Another bill, from February, will require all Russian internet traffic to pass through government-controlled routing points. The filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov, another Kremlin critic, awaits trial in Moscow. The Russian human rights organization Memorial currently counts 421 individuals as victims of persecution on political grounds, 76 of whom are currently imprisoned.

Meanwhile, in the international arena, Russia is bolstering authoritarian regimes in Belarus, Venezuela, and beyond; consolidating its military influence in Africa and the Middle East; and establishing state-controlled media outlets in dozens of languages around the world. Oleg Sentsov stood up against this regime in his home country of Ukraine, and is suffering the gravest consequences for his bravery.

On this fifth anniversary of Oleg Sentsov’s unjust detention, PEN America continues to call for his immediate and unconditional release. His case is emblematic of the larger threats to freedom of expression in Russia and worldwide, and the broad international support for him reflects the global resonance of his courageous message.

demonstrators holding Oleg Sentsov banners