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EU Gives Human Rights Award to Imprisoned Dissident, Sends a Message to Putin

The prestigious Andrei Sakharov Prize was given to Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, held in Russian prison since 2014

Vladislav Davidzon
October 25, 2018
Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)
People wearing masks depicting Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov take part in a protest on Aug. 28, 2018, in front of the Russian embassy in Prague.Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)
Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)
People wearing masks depicting Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov take part in a protest on Aug. 28, 2018, in front of the Russian embassy in Prague.Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)

Oleg Sentsov, a Crimean born dissident and Ukrainian patriot who has captivated Ukraine and the international film world with a heroic 145-day long hunger strike, was awarded the Andrei Sakharov Prize earlier today by the European Parliament.

Sentsov was a bitter opponent of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula and took part in demonstrations against the Russian occupation. A year later he would be convicted on charges of terrorism in a trial that was condemned internationally as legally fraudulent. Convicted for the alleged crime of attempting to set fire to a statue of Vladimir Lenin and several offices of pro-Russian organizations in Crimea, Sentsov was sentenced to a two-decade term in the northern Russian penal colony of Labytnangi. Thus Sentsov became one of the best known political prisoners of our time and a ward of the Russian penal system, infamous for being one of the most brutal in the entire world.

The prestigious Sakharov prize is presented annually in honor of the moral example set by the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, to organizations or individuals who defend human rights. The awarding of the prize to Sentsov sends an unmistakable signal to the Kremlin that Europe considers the current leadership of the Russian Federation a direct spiritual descendant of the Soviet Union. Sentsov’s recognition comes a decade after the post-Soviet NGO, Memorial, which deals with the legacy of Soviet totalitarianism, last garnered the prize a decade ago. Choosing Sentsov as this year’s recipient can only be a deliberate act and underlines the steady degeneration of political relations between Russia and Europe.

Sentsov’s hunger strike had been predicated not only on his personal freedom and return to his native country but on the total release of several dozen Ukrainian political prisoners currently being held illegally by Russia. Most political experts agreed that there was never any real possibility that Russian president Vladimir Putin would accede to those expectations. The hunger strike garnered international praise for the filmmaker (his reputation is based on an above average quality feature-length film he made in 2011 Gamer) and a staggering number of solidarity protests. Numerous international film festivals over the last several years have honored him and called for his release, and left empty seats in audiences and prize committees open for the imprisoned filmmaker.

After his family publicly stated that his health had been irrevocably damaged, Sentsov ended his hunger strike on Oct. 5, stating that he was doing so to avoid being force-fed by the Russian authorities.

It should be remembered that President Putin has already previously refused several concerted pleas for clemency from Oleg Sentsov’s mother. Putin famously has referred to Sentsov as a terrorist and explained that any further request for clemency would have to come from Sentsov personally, which the proud filmmaker has refused to make. In grandiose public gestures of his magnanimity, Putin has on various occasions pardoned his political opponents, such as the oligarch businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the punk inflected performance artists of the Pussy Riot collective.

Putting direct pressure on the Kremlin on behalf of particular political prisoners has been effective in certain instances and draws on a centuries long Russian tradition of direct appeals for clemency to absolutist rulers. Still, the odds of success with this tactic remain low and president Putin is known for being careful not to appear weak and thus often rebuffs international pressure.

The awarding of the prize to Oleg Sentsov may very well lead to unexpected consequences in his case—or perhaps none at all. The Kremlin is exquisitely sensitive to international criticism, but without additional sanctions or pressure from the West, his attending the award ceremony in Brussels on Dec. 12 does not look particularly likely.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.