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Ukrainian Director of ‘Gamer’ Sentenced to 20 Years by Russian Court

Amid accusations of torture and wanting evidence, the pro-Ukrainian filmmaker sang his national anthem as his verdict was read.

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In a plot more compelling than anything he put on film, a Russian court sentenced Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, the director of the 2011 movie Gamer, to 20 years in prison on Tuesday, more than a year after Russian security forces in Crimea arrested him. The trial, full of threats, defiant speeches, and outlandish claims by the court, harkened back to the elaborate show trials of an earlier era of Russian history. Sentsov, defiantly quoting from Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantastical satire The Master and Margarita and singing in the courtroom, made for the martyred protagonist.

Sentsov was arrested in May of 2014 and later charged with masterminding arson attacks with the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist group Right Sector, and plotting to blow up a statue of Lenin. Also charged was Alexander Kolchenko, a left-wing activist who was given a 10-year sentence on Tuesday; two others, Gennady Afanasiyev and Aleksei Chirny, were sentenced in December and April respectively, and each given seven years’ time in labor camps.

On Tuesday, Sentsov and Kolchenko sang the Ukrainian national anthem while the verdict against them was read.

Their trial, which was held in a military court, was marred by accusations of torture, lacking evidence, and a lack of transparency, said Heather McGill, a Eurasia researcher at Amnesty International. “This trial showed a cynical disregard for human rights,” she said in an interview. “This case could go down as one of the most shameful pages in Russian judicial history,” Svetlana Sidorkina, Kolchenko’s lawyer, said the week before Tuesday’s verdicts were announced, according to the Guardian.

Sentsov’s defenders have argued he was arrested illegally and should not be tried in a Russian court. “This isn’t just a farce, it’s a crime: the kidnapping of a Ukrainian citizen on Ukrainian territory, and subsequent torture and illegal detention,” Evgenia Zakrevskaya, Sentsov’s Ukrainian lawyer said in an interview on Ukrainian TV, the Guardian reported. In a July statement to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Baer accused Russia of holding Sentsov hostage, as he was “abducted from Ukraine by Russia-backed separatists and spirited across the border.”

During the trial, Sentsov repeatedly asserted that he was beaten and intimidated by Russian security forces — an accusation prosecutors rebutted by claiming they had discovered “sadomasochistic equipment” in Sentsov’s apartment with which he injured himself through “attempts to gain sexual pleasure.” His fellow defendants also claimed that they had suffered at the hands of their jailers. Afanasiyev, who had initially agreed to testify against Sentsov and Kolchenko, later claimed, according to Amnesty International, that his testimony had been given under duress as state security agents threatened members of his family, and promised that he’d serve his sentence “with the polar bears” if he didn’t play along.

Sentsov, however, remained defiant until the end. At a hearing last week, he told the panel of three judges that, “treason and betrayal can sometimes start with simple cowardice,” wearing a t-shirt with the phrase “Glory to Ukraine” on its front. “I don’t know what your beliefs can possibly be worth if you are not ready to suffer or die for them.”

“Cowardice is the worst sin,” he said, quoting the Pontius Pilate character from The Master and Margarita, a biting satire of Soviet culture.

The lawyers in the case have promised to appeal. Sentsov’s arrest and conviction has prompted loud international condemnation from European filmmakers, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, and Western nations. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko himself took to Twitter to voice his support, writing, “Hold on, Oleg. The time will come, and those who organized the mock trial at you, most will find themselves in the dock!”

SERGEI VENYAVSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas Stackpole is an Assistant Editor at Foreign Policy. @tom_stackpole

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