The possibility of a prisoner exchange has been mooted ahead of the Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov’s appeal against his 20-year sentence before Russia’s Supreme Court tomorrow (Nov 24).

Oleg Sentsov

According to a report by the Ukrainian website joinfo.ua, Yuri Grabovsky, the lawyer of one of two Russians captured in the Luhansk region last May, told the TV channel 24 that Sentsov and political activist Oleksandr Kolchenko might be exchanged for his client Alexander Alexandrov and Evgeny Evrofeev.

“It will definitely not be [the detained Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda] Savchenko. From what we heard, the discussion was only about Sentsov and Kolchenko,” Grabovsky said, suggesting that the chances of an exchange taking place were at 50:50.

Earlier this month, the Russian Defence Ministry had confirmed that Alexandrov and Evrofeev had not been Russian servicemen at the time of their detention, but were in the service of the militants of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic.

Filmmakers implore Mikhalkov to act

The impending appeal hearing has now prompted the international film community to target the veteran Russian producer-director-actor Nikita Mikhalkov, the president of the Moscow International Film Festival and a confidant of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

In an open letter, the Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski described his friend of almost 50 years as ¨not only one of the greatest artists of contemporary cinema, but for me, you have always been a great, deep and wise man. My Russian brother.¨

“I believe that you do not think and feel differently to all the great artists from many countries who signed the letters regarding our Ukrainian colleague to President Putin. The cruelty of first-instance trial brings to mind the darkest judgments of the past of our common civilization and cultur,¨ he wrote.

“I appeal to you and I beg you, as your Polish brother, to do something. Among all of us, you are the person closest to your President and the case. You know that well, it is upon us what we do for others selflessly,¨ Olbrychski concluded.

Olbrychski was in the cast of Mikhalkov’s 1998 film The Barber of Siberia and appeared as Poland’s Vice Foreign Minister in Krzysztof Zanussi’s 2005 drama Persona Non Grata opposite Mikhalkov’s tennis-playing Russian Vice Foreign Minister Oleg.

EFA calls for support  

Olbrychski’s fellow Poles, directors Agnieszka Holland and Andrzej Wajda, joined German filmmakers Wim Wenders and Volker Schlöndorff as members of the European Film Academy to call on Mikhalkov in his capacity as President of the Council of The Union of Filmmakers of the Russian Federation to speak up in support of Sentsov.

¨There has been massive protest from all over Europe, including Russia and from around the world, against the sentence which is violating Oleg Sentsov’s human rights. This verdict is a clear expression of what we all should prevent: the damage of the freedom of speech,¨ the EFA letter said.

“It is our responsibility - as filmmakers and as human beings - to stand up for human rights and the freedom of speech. Please raise your voice and support us in our support of Oleg Sentsov,¨ the four filmmakers wrote.

Mikhalkov had spoken up in support of Sentsov during the closing ceremony of the 2014 Moscow International Film Festival, but has not made any public pronouncements on the case since then.

Supreme Court refuses Afanasyev appeal 

Optimism about a positive outcome for Sentsov’s appeal is tempered by the news that the Russian Supreme Court has already refused to reconsider the seven-year sentence meted out to the political activist Gennady Afanasyev last August.

Afanasyev had not only refused to testify against Sentsov and Kolchenko in the trial, but claimed that his earlier testimony had extracted from him through torture.

According to a Ukrainian human rights website, his lawyer Alexander Popkov suggested that the speed of the court’s rejection  indicated that “a political decision has been taken to steer clear of a case which would be ‘inconvenient’ for the Russian authorities.¨

Afanasyev is being held in extremely harsh conditions in a penal colony in the far north of Russia in the Republic of Komi.

By an ironic twist of timing, Sentsov’s appeal hearing will be heard on the very same day when the European Parliament is announcing the winner of its 2015 LUX Film Prize during this week’s plenary session in Strasbourg.

It may be that the assembled MEPs will seize this opportunity to voice their support once again for the imprisoned filmmaker after having issued a resolution in September condemning the ¨illegal kidnapping¨ of Sentsov and Kolchenko by the Russian authorities.