Russia's famously crooked courts are now going after foreigners

Updated on
Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov
Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov just got 20 years in Russian prison accused of plotting terrorist attacks.
Sergei Venyavsky

Editor's note: This article is updated with news of a Russian court's 20-year prison sentence of a prominent Ukrainian filmmaker.

KYIV, Ukraine — For years, the Russian legal system has been notorious for defending murky business interests and settling political scores against dissidents.

But now Russia’s courts are taking aim at a new breed of alleged offenders: foreign citizens who fall afoul of the Kremlin and wind up on Russian soil to pay the price.

The latest example is renowned Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. On Tuesday, a Russian court sentenced him to 20 years in prison on multiple “terrorism” charges.

Russian security services snatched Sentsov in Crimea last year during a protest against Moscow’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula from neighboring Ukraine. He’s accused of plotting attacks in Crimea, but his supporters say the director’s outspoken pro-Ukraine views are what got him into trouble.

His co-defendant, Alexander Kolchenko, received a 10-year sentence. Watch the two men sing the Ukrainian national anthem shortly after the verdict.


The case comes as Russia and Ukraine blame each other for an uptick in violence in eastern Ukraine, where more than 6,400 have been killed since last year. Moscow has fueled the separatist insurgency there and used its Cold War-style standoff with the West to shore up political support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Critics say the Sentsov trial represents the worst of Soviet-style repression, which included so-called show trials.

“The Sentsov-Kolchenko case is a real ‘Stalinist’ case of the late Putin era,” Russian human rights activist Zoya Svetova tweeted from the courtroom Wednesday. “It was worth coming to Rostov to understand this.”

The two men join imprisoned military pilot Nadiya Savchenko — who also faces trial in southern Russia — as causes célèbres in Ukraine.

Ukrainian military helicopter pilot Nadiya Savchenko stood inside the defendant's cage during her hearing in the Basmanny district court in Moscow on Nov. 11, 2014.

Savchenko, who was fighting with a volunteer battalion in eastern Ukraine last summer, says she was kidnapped by separatists and spirited to Russia. She stands accused of aiding the murder of two Russian journalists on the battlefield, a charge her supporters dismiss.

More from GlobalPost: Why the Kremlin has jailed Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko

The jailed pilot’s sister, Vira, was even present at Sentsov’s hearing on Wednesday, where she shouted a supportive message to the defendants: “Hang in there, all of Ukraine is talking about you!”

But it’s not just Ukrainians who’ve found themselves in Russian courts under mysterious circumstances.

Also on Wednesday, an Estonian security service officer was slapped with a 15-year prison sentence for alleged espionage. But Estonian officials say Eston Kohver was actually abducted by his Russian counterparts in a special operation last September while still on his own soil, near the Russian border.

The case has stirred already deep tensions between Moscow and Estonia, a NATO member that’s vocally criticized Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry has chimed in, too. It said in a statement shortly after Kohver’s sentencing that his case and others represent a broader Russian assault on human rights.

“Estonian citizen E. Kohver, as well as Ukrainian citizens N. Savchenko, O. Sentsov, A. Kolchenko and other foreign citizens who are being held illegally on the territory of the Russian federation are hostages of Russia’s aggressive policies,” it said.