Pressure builds on Russia to release hunger-striking Ukrainian prisoner

Oleg Sentsov is serving a 20-year sentence on terrorism charges thought to have been fabricated

The remote prison in Arctic Siberia where Oleg Sentsov is on hunger strike is thousands of kilometres away from the stadiums in European Russia hosting the World Cup, but whether he lives or dies the suffering of the Ukrainian filmmaker and political activist will cast a shadow over the football championships this month.

Sentsov was arrested in Crimea shortly after Russia took control of the Black Sea peninsular in 2014, and is serving a 20-year sentence on multiple terrorism charges that are widely believed to have been fabricated. He declared a hunger strike on May 14th, demanding the release of 64 Ukrainian citizens he considers to be political prisoners in Russia.

"Either he will die or his demands will be met," Sentsov's lawyer Dmitry Dinze said this week.

Timed to coincide with the World Cup, Sentsov’s action is designed to put maximum pressure on the Kremlin at a time when world attention is focused on Russia as the host of the prestigious international sporting event. So far the Russian leadership has shown no signs of caving in.

Famous in Ukraine both as a film director and a political activist who took part in the Maidan uprising that swept a pro-European government to power in Kiev in early 2014 , Sentsov was arrested by Russian special forces in his homeland of Crimea, where he had been trying to smuggle goods to Ukrainian soldiers stranded at their bases.

Denies charges

A military court in Rostov-on-Don found him guilty the following year of organising a terrorist group and plotting to fire bomb pro-Russian organisations in Crimea. He denied the charges, saying a court run by occupiers could not be just.

Over the four years of his imprisonment Sentsov has become a symbol of Ukraine's struggle with Russia, inspiring human rights activists, international celebrities and government leaders to speak up in his defence. This week scores of prominent filmmakers including Britain's Mike Leigh and Stephen Daldry and Wim Wenders of Germany signed an open letter calling for his release.

A group of Ukrainian activists have launched the #SaveOlegSentsov campaign to take their case global ahead of the World Cup. Rallies are planned in more than 40 cities in North America, Europe, Israel and the United Arab Emirates this weekend to demand the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russian jails. In Moscow, city authorities have refused to grant permission for the demonstrations, saying they would disrupt traffic.

Growing public concern about Sentsov's plight prompted both German chancellor Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, the French president, to raise the matter during recent talks with Vladimir Putin. However, the Russian president sounded uncompromising when questioned about the case at an international business conference in Saint Petersburg last week, reminding reporters that Sentsov was a convicted terrorist.

Failing health

Ahead of the the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, Putin approved the release of several high-profile prisoners, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oil tycoon, and two members of the Pussy Riot punk band. But the Sochi games took place before the Kremlin embarked on aggressive policies in Ukraine that destroyed the West's trust in the Russian leadership and plunged relations to a deep low.

As he weighs his options in the Sentsov case, Putin may conclude that the time for goodwill gestures is over and that releasing a champion of Ukraine’s cause can bring Russia no advantage.

The stakes are extremely high. As reports emerged this week that the health of Sentsov, who is being held in an isolation cell in the Yamal Nenets region, more than 3,600km from Moscow, was failing, there were warnings of the dire consequences for Russia if the Ukrainian prisoner died a political martyr.

"His victory and his sacrifice and his death will place him in the same ranks as Bobby Sands and [the Soviet dissident Anatoly] Marchenko and other titans of humanity," Alexei Navalny, Russian opposition leader wrote on the Echo Moskvy radio website on Thursday.

“There will be films about him and books and streets named in his honour. And new sanctions [against Russia] of course.”

Read More