Terrorist’s fate in Russia and Canadian role in the #FreeSentsov campaign

While days of the ongoing hunger strike which the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov started on May 14, 2018, pass by, voices are heard among the Russian liberal media and analysts that there is no strong campaign in the West standing for his exchange. To name a few, Echo of Moscow, TV Rain, Novaya Gazeta together with their frequent commentators and guests constantly follow the Sentsov’s case and mark that if there is no serious international concern and involvement, the Kremlin is not worried either.

Oleg Sentsov, arrested in Crimea on May 11, 2014, was found guilty of terrorism and sentenced to 20 years in prison in Russia. According to the investigators, he had intentions of exploding the Lenin monument and the Eternal Flame in Simferopol. In reality, it was only proven that he set fire to a door of the Russian Community in Crimea and a window of the United Russia Party office in the city, which were classified by the Russian court as two terroristic attacks. Several times, the Russian authorities rejected Ukrainian requests for his extradition on the grounds of a Russian citizenship that was granted to Crimean citizens after annexation, despite the fact that he himself has never applied for one. According to Sentsov, his hunger strike is devoted to all Ukrainian political prisoners and can be terminated only upon their release, as stated in the letter to his lawyer which was made public by the press.

Taking Canada – where the Ukrainian community and lobby is traditionally strong – as a case-study, the Russian liberal media anxieties can be partly proven. Indeed, when the hunger strike was just declared, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, the umbrella organization for various Ukrainian groups throughout the country, called on the Government of Canada to demand Russia to “immediately release these Ukrainian political prisoners,” addressing the message directly to Justin Trudeau. Among other things, the organization expressed their disappointment that “no action against Russian officials responsible for the illegal imprisonment and violation of human rights of Ukrainian political prisoners” has been taken since the adoption of the Magnitsky Act by Canada in 2017. And it also counted, at that point, on the G7 summit in Montreal to deal with the issue.

The Ukrainian media resource Hromadske published another letter of Sentsov on June 5, 2018, addressed to the leaders of the G7. He expressed his gratitude for everything their countries have done for Ukraine and raised hope that they would further insist on the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners. But, in turn, G7 took absolutely a different angle due to the U.S. President Donald Trump’s behaviour and controversial positions on a number of questions, including his call to readmit Russia to G7 which was opposed by the other members of the group. Thus, the focus of the summit shifted from Ukraine to the clash between the United States and Canada, with both countries switching to a hostile rhetoric and tensions over trade and tariffs.

Whereas the Canadian Prime Minister is primarily occupied preparing and imposing Canadian tariffs against U.S. goods in retaliation for tariffs previously imposed and further promised by Trump, the #FreeSentsov campaign stays pretty low-key in Canada. Several rallies organized by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress branches were held in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Halifax, Mississauga, Victoria. But they happened at the end of May and at the beginning of June and didn’t get any substantial coverage and support beyond the Ukrainian community in Canada.

Among Canadian high-ranking officials, Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Foreign Affairs, mentioned Oleg Sentsov. On June 7, she called on Russia to release him but did it only through her Twitter. On the same day, Borys Wrzesnewskyj, third-generation Ukrainian-Canadian Member of Parliament for Etobicoke Centre, made the statement for a need to use the Magnitsky Act against Russia in connection with Sentsov’s hunger strike. On June 11, the Ukraine-Canada Parliamentary Friendship Group organized a flash mob in support of Oleg Sentsov on the occasion of the Ukrainian Parliamentary delegation visit to the Canadian Parliament. Members of the group, together with a few other Canadian parliamentarians, took a picture with a #FreeSentsov banner in front of the Parliament building. As with the Ukrainian rallies, this event was not really covered in the Canadian media but widely spread in Ukraine.

A Canadian art and culture is a horse of a different colour. PEN Canada, Canadian chapter of the International Association of Writers, called Canadians to send appeals to the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation and the Russian Human Rights Ombudsperson urging the Russian authorities to release Oleg Sentsov and other Ukrainian prisoners in Russia or, at least, to respect his rights and to reconduct an independent and impartial investigation into his allegations. And the last call on the topic in Canada came from the Luminato Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival who issued the joint statement on June 17, attempting to reach the Canadian Government in order to speak against the illegal detention of Sentsov and other Ukrainian political prisoners. In partnership with Natalia Kaliada, co-founder of Belarus Free Theatre, they started the online petition to the Russian government calling to satisfy Sentsov’s demands, which has already got more than 2,700 supporters.

Meanwhile, today is already July 2, and 50 days have passed since Oleg Sentsov started his hunger strike…

Anna Tsurkan, Ph.D., is the associate fellow at the Centre for studies in religion and society of the University of Victoria, B.C., Canada and the head of the Canada-Russia Research Initiative

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