Two high fences enclose the military court in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where a crowd of journalists, diplomats and human rights activists were recently huddled in the 40-degree heat, in a bid to get inside.
I was among them, having travelled from neighbouring Ukraine to observe a key moment as witnesses were questioned in the trial of Oleg Sentsov, a famous Ukrainian film director, and ecologist Aleksandr Kolchenko.
Both men are from Crimea, and have been behind bars since the Russian security services (FSB) detained them shortly after the Russian occupation of the Black Sea peninsula in March 2014.
The military prosecutor’s case against them reads like a secret serviceman’s fantasy, dreamt up to support the Russian propaganda war against Ukraine.
Their mistake was to be open about their opposition to the occupation, prompting a fierce reaction from the Russian authorities. Sentsov stands accused of leading a “terrorist” organization – the local cell of Right Sector, a Ukrainian right-wing group – and both he and Kolchenko are on trial for arson attacks on the offices of pro-Russian groups in the Crimean capital Simferopol, which the authorities described as “terrorist acts”. Both men deny the charges as well as any affiliation with Right Sector.
They’ve already spent more than a year behind bars, but may be there for much longer – Sentsov could face a life sentence and Kolchenko, up to 20 years in prison.
Besides being transferred away from Crimea and tried under Russian law, the setting for this trial was all wrong. Civilians should not be tried in military courts for crimes over which civilian courts have jurisdiction.
In the military court last week, the defendants sat in an iron cage in a tiny room, even though this was meant to be a public hearing. They behaved with restraint, answering the military judges’ questions concisely.
“I pleaded not guilty (…) I believe this case is political and fabricated,” Sentsov said at the beginning of the trial.
There have been serious fair trial concerns in the proceedings against Sentsov and Kolchenko, on top of clear signs the case against them has been politically motivated. Not only have they been shipped to mainland Russia to stand trial miles from home, but Sentsov has stated that he was tortured by Russian Federal Security officers – allegations which were not genuinely investigated – and both defendants were prevented from seeing their lawyers for four days after being transferred from Crimea.
The prosecution’s case hinges on three main witnesses and there are good reasons to suspect that some of them were also subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. Two of them were accused alongside Sentsov and Kolchenko, and have already been convicted and jailed in the same case.
Police escorted the first witness, the activist Aleksei Chirniy, into the courtroom in handcuffs. He looked dejected and never glanced at his fellow activists during the hearing. He is already serving a seven-year sentence after pleading guilty to arson charges in the same case. However, his lawyer reported that he confessed under torture.
“I support my previous statements, but I won’t say anything more,” said Chirniy, looking at the floor. The prosecutor then read off his previous “confessions”, which took more than half a day.
The next day the prosecutor presented another witness, the lawyer Gennadiy Afanasiev. He was the second person to be convicted in the case, and is also serving a seven-year sentence. To everyone’s surprise, he recanted his testimonies, which he said had been given under duress. This bold move has caused many concerns for his safety.
“The Russian system does not forgive such actions,” said one of those present at the trial. Afanasiev has told local prison monitors that Russian secret service members visited him and threatened him in his cell after he refused to testify.
The final witness was a member of the security services. He had carried out a sting operation to provide Chirniy with dummy bombs, which is what led to the activist’s arrest.
Video footage was also shown allegedly proving Chirniy’s intent to blow up a statue of Lenin and the Eternal Flame monument in Simferopol. It included no mention of Oleg Sentsov, let alone anything that would single him out as a leader of this alleged “terrorist group”.
Other aspects of the case are simply absurd. In the prosecutor’s estimation, clear “evidence” of leading a “terrorist” group and planning armed confrontation with the police included such mundane things as having packets of anti-diarrhoea medication and painkillers in their homes, or having business cards from the Ukrainian minister of sport and the mayor of Kyiv.
A November 2014 Russian Supreme Court decision banning three Ukrainian right-wing organizations, including Right Sector, cites the prosecution’s case against Sentsov and Kolchenko as evidence that the organization is active in Russia. The prosecutor now seems under pressure to prove that link at any cost.
Russian activists in solidarity
The highly politicized trial of Sentsov and Kolchenko has resonated not only among their fellow nationals in Ukraine, but also among Russian activists.
After one of the hearings, I went to a park in Rostov, where local activists were conducting one-man pickets in support of Sentsov and Kolchenko. This is the only form of protest in Russia that does not require advance permission from the authorities.
“I think it’s unfair that the guys are tried for something they did not commit. Accusations of terrorism and destabilization of the situation are fabricated. Charging [someone] with terrorism for setting a door on fire – even if they did it – doesn’t make any sense”, one of the picketers told me.
With the verdict soon to be handed down, the prosecutor’s strategy has virtually collapsed, to the point where some in Russia are not convinced and feel strongly enough to speak out about it in public.
Amnesty International continues to call on the Russian authorities to drop the absurd “terrorism”-related charges in this case, and ensure that both defendants and witnesses are protected from torture and other ill-treatment.
A version of this piece originally appeared in Newsweek