Imprisoned Ukrainian Director Oleg Sentsov Freed in Prisoner Swap

Oleg Sentsov - H 2015
AP Images

Oleg Sentsov - H 2015

The exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine sees the director released more than four years after he was sentenced to 20 years behind bars.

Imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was freed in a dramatic prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine on Saturday, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.

According to the report, Sentsov arrived in the Ukrainian capital Kiev on Saturday afternoon.

Sentsov — who was seized from his Crimean home after Russian forces occupied the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014 and was later imprisoned for 20 years on charges of plotting attacks against Russian targets — was among 35 prisoners swapped Saturday.

The Ukrianian director's release came as part of a prisoner exchange that included Kiev handing over Russian prisoners and Moscow returning detained Ukrainian seamen, held since a clash between the Russian and Ukrainian navy in the Kerch Strait, near Crimea, in November 2018.

Sentsov, whose first film Gamer earned him acclaim after its 2012 premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival, was a vocal opponent of the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014.

He vigorously denied the charges against him and always maintained his innocence. That did not stop a Russian military court from sentencing him to 20 years in a Siberian penal colony.

In 2018, Sentsov held a 145-day hunger strike, demanding the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia. He ended the hunger strike amid grave health complications

His imprisonment sparked an international campaign for his release, backed by prominent filmmakers that included British directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, German filmmakers Volker Schlondorff and Wim Wenders, Hollywood star Johnny Depp and French actress Isabelle Huppert, who have all called for Sentsov's release.

The global filmmaking community welcomed Sentsov's release. “It’s been a long and hard campaign and taken a terrible toll on Oleg and his family.” Mike Downey, deputy chairman of the European Film Academy, said in a statement. “The international film community must learn the lesson that there will be regimes that target film makers and film professionals, and we need to be prepared to react and campaign whenever that happens as in the current case of jailed Myanmar film maker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, the recently sentenced Mohamad Rasoulof and long term house arrest prisoner Jaafar Panahi.”