When Russia in March 2014 sent troops in uniforms stripped of insignia to seize the government building in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, his hometown, Mr. Sentsov left Kiev and went home to try to rally resistance to the takeover. Many residents, including ethnic Russians, he said, opposed Moscow’s land grab but mostly stayed silent out of fear of reprisals by thuggish pro-Russian vigilantes and security officials who flooded into the peninsula from Russia.
“I was shocked at first and wondered, ‘Why don’t we fight?’ We gave up without firing a shot,” he recalled. But after several like-minded friends vanished without a trace, he realized how dangerous, even suicidal, it was to speak up for Ukraine.
Realizing that armed resistance was hopeless in 2014 because Ukraine “had no real army,” he helped evacuate besieged Ukrainian troops, arranging buses to carry more than 1,000 of them to safety on the Ukrainian mainland. But he stayed put himself, determined to show that not everyone in Crimea supported the Russian annexation.
“Under Putin you have three choices: shut up, praise him or die,” he said. He recalled how he expected the latter when, in May 2014, he was seized outside his home in Simferopol and thrown into an unmarked van with his head thrust into a bag by armed men who refused to identify themselves.
They turned out to be Russian security officials, he said, who did not want to kill him, only to terrify him and use him in a propaganda exercise aimed at showing that opponents of Russia’s takeover were terrorists.
Tortured and ordered to confess to belonging to a terror group, he was later taken to Russia, first to Moscow for further, mostly nonviolent interrogation, and then to Rostov-on-Don to stand trial. He said his interrogators offered him a deal: Confess to belonging to a terror organization controlled by officials in Kiev and get a seven-year sentence, or refuse and spend 20 years in jail. He declined the offer.