WASHINGTON – Oleh Sentsov, acclaimed Ukrainian filmmaker and political prisoner, addressed the human rights situation in Crimea during an event at Georgetown University on January 27.
“Putin’s objective is not Crimea, Donbas or Ukraine per se; it’s a sphere of influence with all of the former Soviet Union, at a minimum,” said Mr. Sentsov, speaking through a translator. “He’s punishing those countries trying to leave the zone of influence.”
Ambassador Melanne Verveer opened the discussion, which was moderated by former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine and Russia John Tefft. The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, PEN America, the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, and Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies co-hosted the event.
Mr. Sentsov reflected on the five years he spent in Russian prisons for speaking out against the annexation of Crimea.
In a small cell that “looked like a grave,” Mr. Sentsov said he kept his sanity by reading and writing. During his 145-day hunger strike, he kept a diary that will be published as a book.
He joked that he wrote many things unfavorable about Russia. But when the prison guards attempted to read his scripts and novels, they were confounded by his poor handwriting.
Mr. Sentsov also reminisced about the plastic jar where he kept his tea, on which he fashioned a blue and yellow stripe in honor of Ukraine.
The patriotic jar irritated the prison guards, who tried to confiscate it, using different justifications. It was a daily struggle to defend the jar, and Mr. Sentsov sometimes threatened self-harm if the jar was not returned.
When he was released in September 2019 as part of a prisoner swap, Mr. Sentsov presented the jar – with his prison badge inside it – to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He said he hoped it would soon be filled with other prisoner badges in the future.
“What’s at stake is liberty and the freedom of our country,” said Mr. Sentsov.
Though Mr. Sentsov has been released, many other Ukrainians – including Crimean Tatars – remain imprisoned, noted Maria Tomak of Media Initiative for Human Rights.
Ms. Tomak called for increased attention to the international human rights situation in Crimea – including the militarization of Crimea and changing demographics.
Andrey Kurkov, the president of PEN Ukraine, reminded the Washington audience that what is happening right now in Ukraine will be very important in its history.
“And Ukraine will not give in, not surrender,” said Mr. Kurkov.
Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, former envoy to Ukraine, and the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary in the European and Eurasian Bureau, George Kent, were in the audience and were recognized for their commitment to America’s highest values.