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Ukrainian Filmmaker Remains Behind Bars Despite Growing Support

Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov (file photo)
Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov (file photo)

MOSCOW -- The 2011 low-budget film "Gaamer" has met with global recognition for its sensitive depiction of a teenage videogame champion losing touch with real life.

But the film, which debuted at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2012, has rarely been seen in Moscow -- particularly since its director, Oleg Sentsov, was arrested last month in Crimea on suspicion of plotting terrorist acts.

Sentsov, 38, is one of four Ukrainian citizens being held by Russia after the Federal Security Service, or FSB, accused them of seeking to carry out a string of attacks on bridges, power lines, and public monuments in the key Crimean cities of Simferopol, Yalta, and Sevastopol.

The FSB claims came less than two months after a controversial referendum in which residents of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea voted to leave Ukraine in favor of joining Russia. The vote was seen by many as a militarized land grab by Moscow and part of ongoing Kremlin efforts to destabilize Ukraine.

Sentsov is currently being detained in Moscow's Lefortovo prison, where he awaits formal charges and up to 20 years in prison. On June 25, the Memorial human rights organization hosted a screening in Moscow of "Gaamer" in a show of support for the filmmaker.

WATCH: The trailer for "Gaamer"

Film critic Andrei Plakhov, who first saw the film in Rotterdam and helped bring it to a film festival in the Russian city of Khanty-Mansiysk, described Sentsov as an "intelligent" and "promising" and praised his realistic depiction of Ukraine's bleak economic landscape under now-ousted leader Viktor Yanukovych.

"He's a man with ideas, but absolutely nothing outlandish, by no means extremist. To the contrary, his ideas are very normal and productive," said Plakhov before the screening. "This is an absolutely creative person, a person whose primary aim is to create. That's why what's happening is especially bitter. We understand that the film world may lose a talented person. We don't have many of those."

'Political Prisoner'

Sentsov, a Russian-speaking native of Simferopol, openly opposed the Russian annexation of Crimea. He was also active in Automaidan, the automotive wing of Ukraine's pro-Western Euromaidan protests, and helped deliver food and supplies to Ukrainian servicemen blocked at Crimean bases in the early days of the Russian standoff.

His arrest has caused a groundswell of anger among the European filmmaking community, with directors like Agnieszka Holland, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, and Pedro Almodovar co-signing a letter for Russian President Vladimir Putin calling for his release.

A separate petition drive calling on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to intervene in the case has collected nearly 36,000 signatures.

Even Russia's own presidential council for human rights has appealed to Deputy Prosecutor General Viktor Grin to review the circumstances surrounding the arrests of Sentsov and a fellow Ukrainian activist, ecologist Oleksandr Kolchenko. A reply, posted on June 26 on the council's website, says prosecutors found "no grounds" for altering the detention of either suspect.

Russia has sought to bolster its case against Sentsov by accusing him of membership in Ukraine's nationalist paramilitary group, Right Sector -- a claim that both Sentsov and Right Sector deny. Prosecutors also say that Sentsov has confessed to the terrorist plots. But the filmmaker and his lawyer, Dmitry Dinze -- who defended Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina -- say Sentsov was beaten and threatened with rape to force him to confess.

Amnesty International this week called on Russian authorities to investigate Sentsov's allegations of ill-treatment and to return the Ukrainian detainees to Crimea.

Memorial head Aleksandr Cherkasov calls Sentsov a "political prisoner."

"Yes, he's a Maidan activist and he did a lot in Crimea -- for example, he helped Ukrainian soldiers get out of there safely," Cherkasov said. "But the circumstances surrounding the accusations against him suggest they might be fabricated.

"That's one more reason, aside from the quality of the film, that Memorial needed to show 'Gaamer.' In the end, it's a normal expression of solidarity by filmmakers, journalists, and social activists for a colleague who, in a return to the old Russian-Soviet tradition, is now located in Lefortovo."