Oleh Sentsov’s lawyer: We have seen some reasons for optimism about the ongoing work that might lead to Oleh’s release
On May 16, Ukrainian filmmaker currently jailed in Russia as a political prisoner went on a hunger strike. In a public letter he wrote that he would only stop the strike if all 64 Ukrainian prisoners jailed in Russia for politically-motivated grounds are released
Oleh’s relatives say that this is his final step since he has probably lost hope in any other options to solve the problem of the prisoners jailed in Russia on politically motivated grounds. Oleh’s letter and statement on his demands to stop the hunger strike was handed over through his lawyer Dmitriy Dinze (pictured) who visited Sentsov last week. According to Dinze, Oleh has been isolated from other inmates and a doctor is supposed to supervise him. After Oleh’s statement was made public, Ukrainian human rights activists, artists and officials stepped up demands for Russia to release Oleh.
On May 21, Dinze arrived in Kyiv for a meeting with Oleh’s relatives, activists and Ukrainian government. The Ukrainian Weekspoke to Dinze about the outcome of these meetings, rumors of possible prisoner swap for Sentsov and the lawyer’s upcoming vitis to the prison in Labytnangi, a town in Tiumen Oblast where Oleh is serving his term.
You had a lot of meetings in Kyiv, including at the Presidential Administration. What can you say about the results?
Yes, we have been to the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Justice. We have not yet reached the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prosecutor’s Office [the interview was recorded on May 21]. Obviously, we talked about Oleh Sentsov, the options for his rescue, and solutions to his situation. Unfortunately, I cannot share all these conversations with you. What I can say is that I have an optimistic perspective of this situation overall after them. We have seen some reasons for optimism about the ongoing work that might lead to a positive outcome — Oleh’s release.
Rumors have been circulating in Ukraine for the past six months that Sentsov was up for a swap. Can you confirm or deny these rumors? Are you involved in the process in any way?
I am constantly put into a “battle-ready mode”. What does this mean? For instance, we had information about plans to transfer Oleh to Lefortovo [a prison in Moscow. Sentsov is currently in Labytnangi]. Then again. And again.
In the first case they [Russia - Ed.] were allegedly going to swap him for some military. That didn’t work out. The second time they were to swap him for some Russian citizens. That didn’t work out either. In the third case, Natalia Kaplan, Oleh’s sister, is a better person to share that story.
I was ready to go to Lefortovo all three times. When the third rumor of Oleh’s exchange came, we asked a Civic Monitoring Commission for Control of Human Rights Situation in Prisons to find out whether Sentsov was at Lefortovo. They went there and learned that he wasn’t there. Previously, they were going there to give him some goodies just to make sure he was still there. But those were all false starts that had no results.
In what conditions was Oleh kept in Yakutia, and in what conditions is he now in Labytnangi?
It was better in Yakutia. It has frosty but dry climate. It has a normal summer while the fall and spring are not humid. Plus, that prison just generally had better conditions with normal walks, for instance. In Labytnangi, it’s three months of Arctic summer, i.e. humid air and +40/45°C, followed by cold. With high humidity this damages Oleh’s health; his rheumatism gets worse and his heart isn't well at times.
Ukrainian political prisoners have faced cases where other inmates tried to have open conversations with them and discuss politics. Has Oleh faced any such attempts? How is he doing with other inmates?
Under any circumstances, Oleh is under special supervision. From what I understand, all inmates are forbidden to discuss politics with him, otherwise they face solitary confinement. They can only talk to him about routine stuff. Oleh understands that he may be monitored. That’s why he doesn’t say anything extra. His relations with the inmates are neutral, no conflicts. Also, Oleh is absorbed in his thoughts, in his creative work.
You have been handling Sentsov’s case for several years now. Have you run into difficulties?
There is no such thing as difficulties, it’s my job. I wouldn’t say that I have run into difficulties. I try to enter a colony as a diplomat and stick to the recommendations and instructions from Oleh. Let me explain this. If a lawyer is normal, he or she discusses all recommendations and instructions with the client. Then he or she chooses how to act and sticks to that strategy.
A number of lawyers handling cases of Ukrainian political prisoners have mentioned that they were facing pressure. One was Viktor Parshutkin [he died in February 2017]. Have you faced any similar problems?
I haven’t. Thank God, nobody has threatened me. Although there have been cases of surveillance. For instance, we rented an apartment in one city to work on Oleh’s case. A lawyer’s personal things, like his bank card, his pensioner’s ID and the like, went missing there. We then started behaving with more caution. So we have secured ourselves to the extent possible.
You have mentioned other options offered to Oleh instead of the hunger strike. What do you mean?
First, I offered him a legal way to solve the situation. Oleh refused. Then I offered him to get other lawyers involved. He refused as well. He believes that this is all waste of energy and resources. Also, I offered him to solve the issue of the colony where he is kept. He refused. So all of my proposals were discussed, then Oleh rejected them.
He said that it made no sense to write letters to the Supreme Court [of Russia]. “Do you expect the Supreme Court to deliver justice? No? That’s your answer to your question,” he said. I must say that his thinking is quite reasonable. In addition to all of that, we are waiting for a verdict on the case from the European Court [of Human Rights] but we don’t know when it will come.
How effective can a hunger strike be in Russia as an instrument for an inmate?
Oleh told me that “People go on hunger strikes to improve their conditions. When people go on a hunger strike for an idea, it’s something different.” It’s more difficult to get these people to accept a compromise. An idea is more powerful than privileges at a colony, such as making sure that nobody beats you, or that nobody gets to you, or that you get good conditions. He is not on a hunger strike for himself, he doesn’t demand anything for himself. He is asking for other people.
Are his conditions unrealistic in principle?
That’s what Russian human rights lawyers think.
Have Russian human rights activists contacted him? Have they offered help?
They’ve called and asked whether they could hand a letter over to Sentsov. I said yes. I haven’t seen the letter yet though.
You are planning to visit Sentsov soon. How do you prepare for this and what will you discuss?
First, I have to prepare the ground. I can’t go there all of a sudden when nobody is expecting me — a colony director or his deputy may be absent if I come unplanned. I will simply not even get inside. At the very least, I have to notify the colony administration so that they expect my visit.
In the first place, I will speak to Oleh about his health, his general state. Then I will try to talk him into other options, if there are any. I will hear him out. And I will pass news from the free world, if any.
Is there an option of forced feeding for Oleh? Could he face a psychiatric examination?
This is impossible. Forced feeding is torture. What is possible is medical support for the body with saline solutions and glucose. Psychiatric examination is also possible, that happens in this practice.
He underwent one earlier.
Yes. But now they believe at the colony that Oleh has opted for a suicide. Suicidal mood is a psychological deviation. Such people can even be registered as psychiatry patients.
They may bring psychiatrists to Oleh’s colony who will report that he is not mentally healthy. After that he would be taken to a hospital and undergo “treatment”. If that happens, I will accompany him at every stage. Oleh can summon a lawyer to represent him in the process of a psychiatric examination. Also, this means that a judicial procedure is launched to authorize the placement of a person in a mental hospital. The lawyer must be present there.
What was the reaction to Sentsov’s hunger strike in Russia?
Only the human rights activists reacted. Also, there were some reports in the media, but only the opposition-minded ones. I haven’t seen anything in official media or on TV.
You said at the press conference that Oleh had been transferred from Yakutia to Labytnangi because of rallies in his support.
Yes, Maria Alekhina from Pussy Riot arranged those rallies. But she knows the details better. Yes, it was those rallies that triggered his transfer to Labytnangi. That’s what the colony administration told me. They explained this as “security violation”. I think they feared these rallies to grow into something like what had hapenned in Mordovia before, where Nadia Tolokonnikova, one of Pussy Riot members, had been imprisoned.
At one point, the whole colony there was turned upside down and complains of crimes were filed. The protesters talked to the police and occupied entrance points to the colony, they were hanging posters with slogans by the colony walls. At one point, the activists began to rally for the rights of all inmates. They raised a whole range of issues, such as forced labor. That stirred a conflict around the colony. Then its director disappeared and his deputy was transferred to some other place. Look it up on the internet if you’re interested.
It’s impossible to force him. And nobody’s trying to.
Can Oleh communicate with other political prisoners? Such as Oleksandr Kolchenko?
What are you talking about! Of course, not! He’s not even allowed to call his sister, let alone talk to other prisoners.
Can you give any prognosis on the reaction of the Russian government?
I cannot answer this question. I just don’t know the answer. Whether there will be any reaction or not. If there isn’t any, the man will die. If there is any, the man will be released. There is nothing in between.
You have mentioned that Oleh wrote 5-6 scripts during his imprisonment. Has he shared what they are about?
Yes, he has. I have asked him but Oleh isn’t sharing. The only thing he said was “You’ll find out when I’m released.”
The Russian foreign minister claimed that Ukraine was planning an "armed provocation" in the coming weeks. Moscow-Kyiv relations have continued to deteriorate after Russia seized three Ukrainian ships at sea