Ukrainian Oleg Sentsov, who was released Saturday as part of a landmark prisoner exchange with Russia, was forging a successful career as a film director when the Russian annexation of his native Crimea abruptly changed his life.
Instead of being behind a camera, the 43-year-old ended up languishing in a penal colony in the Russian Arctic after he was convicted of planning arson attacks in the annexed peninsula.
Serving a 20-year prison sentence, he was the most high-profile Ukrainian political prisoner held in Russia.
In July, Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelensky offered to hand over a jailed Russian state media journalist in exchange for Sentsov.
The journalist, Kyrylo Vyshynsky, was also released Saturday as part of the deal.
Lengthy hunger strike
In 2018, Sentsov staged a 145-day hunger strike demanding that Russia free all Ukrainian political prisoners. He finally halted it to avoid being force-fed.
Relatives and visitors reported that his health declined dramatically but he said afterwards that he was recovering quickly.
Sentsov made his first film “Gamer” in 2011, writing, directing and producing it himself on a budget of just $20,000, raised from his job running a gaming centre in Crimea’s main city of Simferopol.
It was shown at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2012 as well as several other European festivals.
At the time of his arrest in 2014, he was preparing to make a new film, “Nosorog,” or “Rhino” with financing from a German film fund.
He was also an opposition activist and member of protest group AutoMaidan, which held drive-by protests against Ukraine’s Russia-backed then-president Viktor Yanukovych.
He took part in the Maidan popular uprising in Kiev over the winter of 2013-2014, which culminated in Yanukovych’s ousting.
He was convicted in 2015 by a Russian military court of carrying out arson attacks on pro-Kremlin party offices in Crimea and plotting further attacks, including blowing up a Lenin statue in Simferopol.
Stars demand release
His trial alongside co-defendant Alexander Kolchenko, who was also released on Saturday, prompted condemnation from Western countries and Kiev, with Amnesty International likening it to “Stalinist-era show trials.”
Supporters say Russia wanted to make an example of him with a particularly harsh sentence.
Stars including Pedro Almodovar and Johnny Depp called for Sentsov’s release, along with Western governments led by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Last year the European Parliament awarded him the prestigious Sakharov prize, worth 50,000 euros, for his “exceptional contribution” to human rights around the world.
Sentsov has two children including a son who has autism.
His mother in a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin last year begged him: “Do not destroy his life and that of his loved ones. We are waiting for him at home.”