Written by Naja Bentzen and Ionel Zamfir,
Thirty years since it was first awarded, the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought retains all its symbolic meaning, as human rights continue to be embattled in many parts of the world. The courage of those who stand up for them therefore deserves to be widely recognised. By awarding the 2018 Prize to the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov – who is currently an inmate in a penal colony in Siberia – Parliament aims to increase the pressure on Russia to release Sentsov. At the same time, the award also draws attention to the struggle of all Ukrainian political prisoners currently behind bars in Russia and the annexed Crimean peninsula.
Significance of the prize
The Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought is awarded each year by the European Parliament to individuals or organisations for their outstanding achievements in upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms. Created through a Parliamentary resolution of 13 December 1985, the prize bears the name of prominent Soviet-era dissident, Andrei Sakharov, joint inventor of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, 1975 Nobel Peace Prize-winner and campaigner for human rights and nuclear disarmament in the Soviet Union. The prize was named after him in recognition of his courageous defence of human rights, among which the freedom of thought and expression, to the detriment of his professional career and personal freedom. The prize was awarded for the first time in 1988 jointly to Nelson Mandela and (posthumously) to Soviet dissident Anatoli Marchenko. Both Mandela and Marchenko embodied the bravery of the individual who stands up to the discretionary power of an oppressive regime and paying for it with their personal freedom. Mandela’s story is widely known. Marchenko was one of the best-known dissidents in the Soviet Union. He died in 1986 after a three-month-long hunger strike for the release of all Soviet dissidents. The public outcry caused by his death pushed Mikhail Gorbachev to authorise the release of political prisoners from Soviet jails. His courageous action prefigures the similarly brave standing of the 2018 laureate (see below).
The prize is awarded for a specific achievement in one of the following fields: defence of human rights and fundamental freedoms, particularly the right to free expression; safeguarding the rights of minorities; respect for international law; development of democracy and implementation of the rule of law.
Nominations can be made by political groups or by at least 40 Members of the European Parliament, and are submitted during a joint meeting of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs (AFET) and Development (DEVE) Committees. This year, on 9 October 2018, the two committees shortlisted the following three finalists from among the eight nominees: Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film-director, convicted in Russia to 20 years in prison for his opposition to the annexation of Crimea (proposed by the EPP), NGOs protecting human rights and saving migrant lives across the Mediterranean Sea (proposed by S&D and the Greens/EFA), and Nasser Zefzafi, the leader of a mass protest movement in the Rif region of Morocco, sentenced to 20 years in prison (proposed by GUE/NGL). The Conference of Presidents, composed of President Antonio Tajani and the leaders of the political groups, chose Oleg Sentsov, the Ukraine filmmaker detained in Russia, as this year’s laureate. The prize, consisting of a certificate and €50 000, will be presented at a ceremony in the European Parliament during the plenary session in Strasbourg on 12 December 2018. All three finalists are invited to the award ceremony. This year’s laureate will be represented by a relative and by his lawyer. Other laureates in the history of the prize have also been prevented from attending because of detention, most recently Raif Badawi in 2015. Sentsov is the first laureate from eastern Europe since 2009, when the Russian human rights centre, Memorial, received the prize.
Oleg Sentsov: Ukrainian filmmaker and symbol for political prisoners
Born on 13 July 1976 in Simferopol (Crimea), Oleg Sentsov studied marketing at Kyiv State Economics University. He did not particularly enjoy these studies, which he said ‘disillusioned’ him. After managing a computer club in Simferopol and playing online video games professionally for years – eventually becoming the champion of Ukraine – Sentsov became the leader of the Crimean gaming movement. This experience from the gaming world served as inspiration for his first feature film Gamer, which was released in 2011 and later screened at a number of international film festivals.
Euromaidan as a turning point for Ukraine — and for Sentsov
Sentsov’s work on his film Rhino, about children of the 1990s, was interrupted in 2013, when he joined the Revolution of Dignity (‘Euromaidan’) that broke out in Ukraine after pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich decided to suspend talks on an EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. In February 2014, the protests paved the way for a new pro-European government and the ousting of Yanukovich. When Moscow responded by illegally annexing Crimea and launching a hybrid war against Ukraine, Sentsov helped bring food to Ukrainian soldiers and organised rallies for a united Ukraine in Simferopol. Sentsov was arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service in Crimea in May 2014, and deported to Russia. In what Amnesty International called a ‘cynical show trial’, a Russian military court in August 2015 convicted Sentsov to 20 years imprisonment for plotting terrorist acts. Sentsov denies the charges, which he and human rights groups call politically motivated. Sentsov said he was beaten for 24 hours in an attempt to force him to confess. Russian authorities have refused to investigate the allegations of torture.
Increasing concerns over Sentsov’s health after hunger strike
In May 2018, Sentsov began a hunger strike, demanding the release of all Ukrainians held on political grounds in Russia and annexed Crimea. Amid growing concern over Sentsov’s health, Ukraine’s Mission to the United Nations (UN) in June delivered an official letter on behalf of 38 countries to the UN Secretary-General. Sentsov ended the 145-day hunger strike on 6 October 2018. In a handwritten statement he explained that he had no choice but to halt the hunger strike to avoid being force-fed by Russian authorities due to the critical state of his health. Kyiv’s calls to swap Sentsov and Ukrainian journalist Roman Suschenko, arrested in Moscow in 2016 on espionage charges, for Russian prisoners, have so far been rejected by Moscow.
International support, including from the EU and the European Parliament
In addition to Ukraine, the European Union, the United States, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, human rights groups, filmmakers’ and writers’ associations and even Russian film-director Nikita Mikhalkov, who has close links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, have requested Sentsov’s release. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / Vice-President of the Commission, Federica Mogherini, has repeatedly underlined that Sentsov’s detention breaches international law, and urged Russia to return Sentsov and fellow activist Oleksandr Kolchenko to Ukraine. In a June 2018 resolution, Parliament requested the immediate release of Sentsov and the 70 other Ukrainian citizens illegally detained in Russia and Crimea. After Sentsov ended his hunger strike, the European External Action Service condemned Russian authorities’ refusal to provide Sentsov appropriate medical treatment. Announcing the Sakharov Prize laureate in Strasbourg on 25 October 2018, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani stated that Sentsov’s ‘courage and determination’ has made him ‘a symbol of the struggle for the release of political prisoners held in Russia and around the world’. With the award of the Sakharov Prize, Parliament is ‘expressing its solidarity with him and his cause’, Tajani said: ‘We ask that he be released immediately’.
Responses to the 2018 Sakharov Prize
While Russia’s Foreign Ministry criticised Parliament’s decision as ‘absolutely politicised’, others hailed it. PEN America called it ‘a powerful statement in defence of writers, artists, political prisoners, and all those … actively fighting for free thought and free expression in a time of creeping – and not so creeping – authoritarianism around the world’. Human Rights Watch said the award would help increase the pressure on Moscow to release Sentsov. European Council President Donald Tusk renewed his call on Moscow to ‘free Sentsov and all other political prisoners following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea’. Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman expressed gratitude to Parliament for the award, which he called ‘a strong message highlighting the necessity of democracy protection in the world’.
Read this At a glance note on ‘The 2018 Sakharov Prize‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.