The Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, widely considered one of Russia’s most high-profile political prisoners, has reportedly been moved to a Moscow jail in anticipation of a possible prisoner exchange with Ukraine.
Sentsov was arrested after Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and was sentenced to 20 years jail on terrorism charges in what was widely condemned by international human rights groups as a political show trial. Sentsov’s case has attracted an outcry from the global cinema industry, including many stars such as Johnny Depp and Sir Patrick Stewart.
On Thursday, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, Akhmet Chiygoz, said that Sentsov had been transferred from the Arctic prison colony where he was being held to Moscow’s Lefortovo jail. Chiygoz said he expected Sentsov to be traded on Friday as part of a larger prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine.
“According to the information that I possess, on Friday they should all arrive together,” Chiygoz, a member of the European Solidarity fraction, said in an interview with Ukrainian television.
Earlier on Thursday, the Russian agencies TASS and Interfax, citing anonymous sources, reported that Sentsov had been moved to Moscow from the remote Labytnangi prison colony in the Arctic Circle where he was being held. A source told Interfax that the move was in preparation of a prisoner exchange.
Sentsov’s lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, has not confirmed the move and told TASS that he was not aware of any prisoner exchange.
Sentsov’s possible move comes amid reports last week that Russia and Ukraine are close to agreeing to a larger exchange of captives taken during the war in eastern Ukraine. It also comes one day after a Kyiv court ordered the Russian state media journalist Kirill Vyshinsky to be released on bail, setting off speculation that a swap could be imminent.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said last month that Ukraine could release Vyshinsky if Russia freed Sentsov. Russia is also currently holding 24 Ukrainian navy sailors it seized near Crimea last November and both sides have dozens of other prisoners taken during the five-year conflict.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine though has confirmed the exchange. The Kremlin on Thursday declined to comment on whether Sentsov was being traded or if a larger trade could take place on Friday.
"I can tell you that certain contacts are taking place, but I have nothing to add," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in his daily briefing call. “We will tell you when we are ready. Right now we are not ready.”
A vocal opponent of Russia's invasion of Crimea, Sentsov was arrested there shortly after Russia annexed the peninsula in spring 2014. Russian prosecutors accused Sentsov of planning an arson attack on a local pro-Russian group's office. The 43-year-old father of two was charged with plotting terrorist acts and sentenced to 20 years jail.
International human rights groups condemned Sentsov’s trial as one of the most egregious recent political trials in Russia, saying the charges were fabricated and that trial was intended to terrorize possible opponents of Russia’s takeover in Crimea. Amnesty International compared Sentsov’s trial to “Stalinist-era show trials.”
In Ukraine, Sentsov has become an icon of resistance to Russia. Last year, he went on hunger strike for 145 days, demanding the release of Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia, eventually ending it as his health deteriorated.
A promising director, whose first feature film, "Gamer," won praise from critics, Sentsov has attracted support from many in world cinema, with major film festivals issuing calls for his release along with many leading actors, directors and intellectuals. The United States and European governments have also demanded that Russia release Sentsov. Last year, the European Parliament awarded Sentsov with its Sakharov Prize, its highest honor for contributions to human rights.