NEW YORK—PEN America announced today that it will honor Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, an activist imprisoned on spurious charges in Russia, with the 2017 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award at its annual Literary Gala on April 25 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Sentsov, an outspoken critic of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and takeover of Crimea, is serving a 20-year sentence in a Siberian penal colony after his arrest on terrorism charges that have been condemned by human rights groups as fabrications by a Russian government intent on silencing dissent.
Oleg Sentsov is widely regarded for work that includes two short films, A Perfect Day for Bananafish and The Horn of a Bull, and a full-length feature film, Gamer, that debuted to acclaim at the 2012 International Film Festival Rotterdam. His writings include scripts, plays, and essays, and he has continued to produce prolifically from prison.
An activist during the EuroMaidan protests that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Sentsov continued to protest Russia’s subsequent military incursion in Ukraine. He disappeared from Simferopol after a demonstration on May 11, 2014, resurfacing in Russian custody in Moscow days later. Denied the consular assistance of Ukrainian authorities on the grounds that he was rendered a Russian citizen upon the annexation of Crimea, Sentsov was put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to a Siberian prison thousands of miles away from his two children who live with his mother in Simferopol.
Sentsov’s trial was characterized by abuse, inconsistencies, and lack of evidence. Sentsov alleged in court that he was tortured in a failed attempt to extract a confession and showed visible bruises at his trial. The government’s key eyewitness against him later retracted his testimony, saying it had been coerced through torture, and a banned paramilitary group that the government tried to link to Sentsov has denied any ties to him.
“The abduction, abuse, and baseless conviction of Oleg Sentsov are emblematic of President Vladimir Putin’s brazen willingness to flout laws and norms, his imperviousness to the optics of targeting an internationally known filmmaker and writer, and his refusal to countenance dissent,” said PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel. “We as writers, artists, and intellectuals must be outspoken in naming Sentsov as a writer of conscience unjustly jailed for nothing other than the expression of his views.”
Sentsov has shown unflinching courage in the face of Putin’s brutal treatment, writing in a letter smuggled from prison: “If we’re supposed to become nails in the coffin of a tyrant, I’d like to become one of those nails. Just know that this particular nail will not bend.”
Since 1987, PEN America has honored more than 50 individual writers worldwide with the Freedom to Write Award, recognizing their struggle in the face of adversity for the right to free expression. Of the 41 writers who were in prison at the time they received the award, 37 have been freed due in part to the attention and pressure the award generates.
“The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award is a reminder of the heavy price that writers pay to speak out in societies where free expression is not respected,” said Peter Barbey, owner of the Village Voice and director of the Edwin Barbey Charitable Fund, which sponsors the award. “At a time when we are reminded of both the necessity and the risks that accompany dissent, Oleg Sentsov is an inspiration to all who dare defy those in power. We urge the Russian government to grant his immediate freedom.”
PEN America’s April 25 Literary Gala will also honor famed composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim with the 2017 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award for his six decades of witty lyrics, contagious melodies, and unforgettable characters. In addition, the gala will salute Publisher Honoree John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan Publishers, for his integrity in publishing.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.