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Russia: Scenes From a Trial

Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko stand convicted of terrorism in Russia. Their supporters say the trial of the Ukrainian patriots was a farce.

by Tatiana Kozak 27 August 2015

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia | "All journalists please come to room number three!" the bailiff shouts at the crowd in a corridor of the Military Court in Rostov. After a month of hearings, the trial of Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko is coming to a head.


It is 19 August, the day the defendants are due to make their closing statements. With little doubt over the outcome, the two men’s statements will become a crucial moment in the trial, if only for the drama they provide.


Russian media dubbed it the “Crimean terrorist case.” The two Crimea-born Ukrainian citizens – Sentsov, 38, a film director, and Kolchenko, 25, a leftist activist and environmentalist – were arrested along with two other men and charged with setting fires at the offices of the Russian Community of Crimea and the local branch of the ruling United Russia party in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, in May 2014, two months after Crimeans voted in favor of joining Russia.


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The charges were soon jumped up to far more serious ones of terrorism, even though the damage was minor: a door was damaged in the first fire, and a window and a kitchen in the second.


Sentsov and Kolchenko were also accused of being followers of the far-right Ukrainian Right Sector organization, a nationalist group that Russian authorities regard as extremist. Judge Sergei Mikhalyuk refused to accept a document submitted by Right Sector leader Dmitry Yarosh swearing that neither man belonged to the group. Prosecutor Oleg Tkachenko later adjusted the charge: Sentsov and Kolchenko were accused not of being Right Sector members, but of having “embraced the ideology of the organization” as a guide to their actions.


Russian justice regards Sentsov and Kolchenko as citizens of the Russian Federation, although neither expressed a wish to obtain Russian citizenship after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. For this reason three Ukrainian consuls were not allowed to visit them during the trial, although the judge satisfied the defense’s requests to allow family visits. For the first time in a year Kolchenko’s mother, Larisa, was able to visit her son on 21 July.


The men had been detained in Lefortovo prison in Moscow since their arrest. However, when the trial began on 21 July, the venue was moved to the Rostov Military Court in southern Russia, where one of only two courts in the country that try terrorism cases is located.


"Why Rostov? Because, roughly speaking, it is closer to the ‘crime scene’ -- that is, Crimea. So they made the decision from the geographic point of view. Also to avoid the hype. Not too many people will be able to come to Rostov, unlike Moscow,” Natalya Kochneva, Sentsov’s sister, said. A resident of Moscow, she attended every court session.


*    *    *


Hearings took place almost daily over the course of the trial. Some 20 witnesses testified, including “secret” ones, but the most dramatic testimony was heard from the two men already convicted for their part in the fire bombings, Gennady Afanasyev and Alexei Chirny, who became the chief witnesses for the prosecution.


The proceedings were noisy and often colorful. Spectators packed the courtroom – journalists, diplomats, human rights activists, family members of the accused. At the first hearing, reporters for several Russian nationwide TV channels turned up – Zvezda, Lifenews, Russia 24 and others – but not a single Ukrainian TV journalist. “No one from Ukraine? Perfect!” Sentsov said when told no Ukrainian broadcaster had filed a request to cover the hearing.


The press of journalists and spectators made the bailiffs nervous and prone to over-react. On the day the defendants made their closing remarks, a bailiff gathered all the attending journalists into a room and warned them against provocations, on penalty of being removed from the courthouse. The warning was apparently prompted when a journalist once notorious for his anti-Ukrainian provocations, Sergei Rulev, now a reporter for a Rostov newspaper, claimed he’d spotted other reporters outside the court handing out T-shirts for what looked like an action to discredit the court. It turned out that he had seen Sentsov’s sister Kochneva showing journalists a T-shirt emblazoned with “Free Sentsov and Kolchenko”  – the one she wore all that day.


Bailiffs are also got irritated when Vera Savchenko appeared in court wearing a traditional Ukrainian vyshyvanka dress. She is the sister of the Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who is also in the Rostov region awaiting trial for the murder of two Russian journalists and crossing the border into Russia illegally. The head of the court’s guard service came over to double-check Vera’s documents; he seemed determined not to let her into the courtroom. Taking advantage of a moment when the courtroom door was open, she shouted from the hallway to Sentsov and Kolchenko, "Hold on guys, Ukraine is with you!"


They had time to shout back "Say hello to Nadiya!" and "Glory to heroes!" before Savchenko was ejected from the courthouse for good.


Ÿ Ÿ Ÿ*    *    *


The prosecution built its case on the testimony of Afanasyev and Chirny. They were arrested together with Kolchenko and Sentsov and according to investigators, belonged to the terrorist group allegedly created by Sentsov. Both became acquainted with Sentsov at gatherings of Ukrainian patriots in Simferopol. During the trial in Rostov, Afanasyev, a photographer, said he only exchanged contact information with Sentsov for work purposes.


According to the Russian Security Service (FSB), the aim of the group was to commit subversive and terrorist acts in Simferopol, Sevastopol, and Yalta. Besides the arson attacks, they supposedly planned to bomb a Lenin monument and the Eternal Flame memorial in Simferopol.


Afanasyev and Chirny pleaded guilty and were each given seven-year prison sentences at trials in Moscow last December and in Rostov this April, respectively. Under their agreement with prosecutors, the two had to testify against Sentsov and Kolchenko. On 30 July Chirny confirmed his previous testimony “in full,” but refused to give new testimony, and the next day saw a dramatic moment when Afanasyev denied all his previous testimony, saying it was given under duress. His retraction was totally unexpected, as he had not made earlier claims of torture and had cooperated fully with prosecutors.


Afanasyev was unable to meet with his lawyer in Rostov, Alexander Popkov, until 3 August. He told Popkov FSB agents had beaten him wearing boxing gloves, induced vomiting by injecting gas into a gas mask they forced him to wear, given him electric shocks, threatened to rape him with a soldering iron, and deprived him of sleep for 10 days, after which he agreed to sign his confession.


In the Rostov courtroom, he admitted to participating in the arson attacks but denied taking part in preparations to blow up the Lenin monument.


"I was tortured and beaten by the same people who detained me and I remember their faces well," Afanasyev wrote in a note to Popkov.


According to Afanasyev, the investigators themselves composed his testimony, "flipping" real events beyond recognition: "I was completely depressed and obeyed all the demands of the FSB."


Because the court chose to overlook Afanasyev’s allegations of torture, Sentsov’s lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, read out his description of his abuse in prison during his closing statement, leaving it up to the panel of three judges whether to take this into account or not.


In his closing statement, prosecutor Tkachenko insisted that Afanasyev’s rights were “fully respected” during the investigation.


"Afanasyev refused to testify in court, saying that he had testified under pressure. He was in such a hurry to demonstrate his loyalty to the defendants that he failed to understand the absurdity of his own statements," Tkachenko said.


The prosecutor said the facts of the arson attacks had been proven beyond doubt.


"There is a common element in these arson attacks: a complete disregard for the consequences that might have followed the fire. In both cases, the targets were organizations that had the words ‘Russia’ and ‘Russian’ in their names and where Russian flags hung," Tkachenko said. He requested prison terms of 23 years for Sentsov and 12 years for Kolchenko.


Defense attorneys in their statements denounced the prosecution’s case as a fabrication.


" ‘Terrorist organizations’ have been artificially created by the investigators, and most of the evidence obtained in violation of the law," lawyer Vladimir Samokhin said, adding that Afanasyev’s statements had been all but ignored by the prosecution.


Dinze said the prosecution’s materials were “customized” using the forced confessions of Chirny and Afanasyev.


The terrorism investigation against the four men was “the first thing that was born in the depths of the newly established FSB in Crimea. The FSB had to report some sensational case,” he summed up.


The defense requested acquittal on all charges for Sentsov and Kolchenko, although they were confident the judge would give exactly the sentences mentioned at the beginning – 20 and 10 years for Sentsov and Kolchenko respectively. Dinze, Sentsov’s attorney, said he was personally told that Sentsov would get 20 years unless he changed his statements.


Ÿ Ÿ Ÿ*    *    *


On the day set aside for their closing statements, Sentsov and Kolchenko sit as throughout the trial in an “aquarium” – a cage with plastic windows. Sentsov wears a white T-shirt with the Ukrainian arms and a Cossack playing the bandura. He looks haggard, though confident and cocky, cracking jokes. He raises two fingers in the victory salute when he greets people. He talks to his sister when there’s a moment. Kolchenko also looks cheerful, but much thinner. His black and red T-shirt displays the words “Fire and Flames.”


As the hearing begins, Sentsov says to the judges, "I do not consider this court legal, so you can do whatever you want." Kolchenko speaks first, reading from a sheet of paper covered in his small handwriting. He believed from the first that the case was fabricated and politically motivated, rejected the terrorism charge and did not consider himself guilty.


"As far as the wording of the charges – it’s just wonderful,” he goes on. “Based on the logic of the prosecution, it turns out that if a couple uses contraceptives, it is only for the purpose of destabilization of the demographic situation in the country and of the country's defense as a whole. If you criticize a government official, it is to undermine the image of his country in the international arena. The list of such formulations can be continued indefinitely.”


This phrase makes Sentsov laugh, and smiles appear in the spectator’s section too.


This trial is of a piece with the prosecutions of anti-Putin protestors in Moscow and the Savchenko trial. The aim of all these cases is to strengthen the current Russian regime, Kolchenko says.


"But by throwing us into prison, this regime only brings its end closer. And those people that only yesterday believed in law and order are now losing that faith,” he says.


In his statement Sentsov, like Kolchenko, praises the courage Afanasyev showed by recanting his testimony. Cowardice is the “biggest and worst sin” and betrayal is “a special form of cowardice,” he says, hinting at his feelings about Chirny.


“When somebody has a bag put over their head, then gets slightly beaten, and half an hour later they're ready to renounce all their convictions, to incriminate themselves in anything, to incriminate other people, only to stop the beating. I do not know what kind of beliefs you may have if you're not ready to suffer or die for them.”


Sentsov had earlier claimed investigators had tortured him to try and force a confession.


Near the end of his statement, Sentsov, referring to the cameras, calls them "troubadours of the regime,” then asks, "Why raise a new generation of slaves, guys?"


When he finishes, many spectators began clapping. The bailiff orders the court cleared.


Kochneva is not optimistic.


"Repressions are in full swing. I am afraid that this trial is only the beginning of very, very harsh repression. So far, they never requested such long terms for anything. Twenty-three years -- even we did not expect that. Kafka is our hero,” she says.


Ÿ Ÿ Ÿ*    *    *


In the days before the reading of the verdict on 25 August even the defense attorneys seemed resigned to the outcome.


The two men’s lawyers had already begun making plans to appeal as the trial wound down, and if that failed, for a prisoner swap to enable the men to serve their time in Ukraine.


The verdict was read out in a larger courtroom that could hold some 90 journalists, including reporters for three Ukrainian TV channels, who had come to cover the climax of the five-week trial.


The session lasted only about 20 minutes. When Judge Mikhalyuk announced that the two were found guilty on all counts, perhaps the only surprising thing was his handing down slightly shorter sentences than the prosecution demanded: 10 years for Kolchenko and 20 years for Sentsov, who gave an ironic smile as the judge spoke.


When the judge then asked the defendants if everything was clear, they stood up and sang the Ukrainian national anthem, ending with a shout of “Glory to Ukraine!” Some spectators stood while they sang the anthem, ignoring the bailiffs’ requests to sit.


Afterward Sentsov’s sister, Kochneva, said, "This is the real Stalinist repression. The trial is a mere show – the whole world considers Oleg a citizen of Ukraine but the Russian justice system think he's a citizen of Russia."


The European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini made the same point. “Russian courts are not competent to judge acts committed outside the internationally-recognized territory of Russia. The EU considers the case to be in breach of international law and elementary standards of justice," read a statement her office released 25 August.


Defense lawyers said before sentencing that if the pair were found guilty they would appeal to the Russian Supreme Court to seek "a clear, final decision,” and if they received no satisfaction there, would appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.


The pair’s attorneys are also working up a plan for a prisoner exchange, where the men would be transferred to Ukraine to serve their sentences.


"There is a legal mechanism that is not particularly promising in the conditions of Russia today, but we will see if it works out. …  Legal and diplomatic mechanisms should start working to ensure that this can be resolved -- for Russia not to lose face and also satisfy Ukraine -- a delicate moment," Dinze said.


"I want to hope that there will be an exchange. It's the only thing I can say,” Ukraine’s consul general in Rostov, Vitaly Moskalenko, told journalists.


“Of course, the Ukrainian government will do everything possible to somehow free the unjustly accused Ukrainian citizens,” he added.

Tatiana Kozak is a political reporter for the Ukrainian weekly Novoye Vremya. 



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