#FreeSentso­v And 70 oth­ers!

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When the World Cup 2018 foot­ball cham­pi­onship started in Rus­sia on June 14, Rus­sia’s now-fa­mous po­lit­i­cal pris­oner Oleg Sentsov was 32 days into his hunger strike.

Sentsov, the 41-year-old Ukrainian film di­rec­tor and writer, is a po­lit­i­cal pris­oner, sen­tenced to 20 years in pri­son in a sham trial, al­legedly for ter­ror­ism. His real crime: Op­pos­ing Rus­sia's in­va­sion and an­nex­a­tion of Crimea in 2014.

Sentsov is de­ter­mined to draw at­ten­tion to dozens of Ukraini­ans, per­haps 71 by the latest best es­ti­mate, il­le­gally im­pris­oned Rus­sia and Rus­sian-an­nexed Crimea.

The fear is that his con­vic­tions and his prin­ci­ples may cost him his life.

Sentsov only drinks boiled wa­ter. To keep him alive, pri­son doc­tors started in­tra­venously giv­ing him a glu­cose so­lu­tion, which should sup­port the func­tion­ing of his in­ter­nal or­gans and ex­tend his life for a few weeks. They also moved him to a pri­son ward to mon­i­tor his con­di­tion. Af­ter the 30th day of a hunger strike, the body suf­fers ir­re­versible ef­fects.

But Askold Kurov, a Rus­sian film­maker who vis­ited Sentsov on June 4, told the Kyiv Post that Sentsov "was very de­ter­mined to go by the end.”

As the world's eyes are turned to Rus­sia for the World Cup, Sentsov's strike has drawn more at­ten­tion to the plight of Ukrainian pris­on­ers in the last month than in the last four years.

“This topic was ab­so­lutely un­no­ticed," said Mariya To­mak, co­or­di­na­tor of Me­dia Ini­tia­tive for Hu­man Rights.

There are also some hopes that Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, if he cares about im­prov­ing his im­age, might find this a good time to free the pris­on­ers. He did so be­fore Rus­sia hosted the Olympic games in Sochi in 2014.

“Sentsov’s ac­tions are the ex­treme way of a peace­ful strug­gle,” said Emil Kurbe­di­nov, a lawyer who is de­fend­ing sev­eral Crimean Tatar po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers. “And it gives hope to many."

World­wide cam­paign

Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko on June 8 met for the first time with fam­ily mem­bers of Sentsov and other Ukraini­ans jailed in Rus­sia and Crimea.

On the next day, Poroshenko spoke by phone with Putin. They agreed that Ukrainian om­budswoman Lyud­myla Denisova would visit Ukraini­ans kept in Rus­sia and Crimea, while Rus­sian om­budswoman Tatyana Moskalkova would meet with Rus­sian na­tion­als kept in Ukrainian jails.

Putin had pre­vi­ously re­fused even com­ment on Sentsov’s case, re­peat­edly call­ing him a “ter­ror­ist.” But in late May Putin had to an­swer ques­tions about Sentsov in talks with French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron. On June 8, Euro­pean Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Don­ald Tusk

called on the coun­tries of G7 to de­mand the re­lease of Sentsov.

An in­ter­na­tional cam­paign to free Sentsov reached even Rus­sian state TV, where sev­eral film­mak­ers spoke in his sup­port dur­ing the award cer­e­mony of Kino­tavr, Rus­sia’s largest film fes­ti­val, which was broad­cast live on June 11.

Pos­si­ble ex­change

Law­maker Iryna Gerashchen­ko, who rep­re­sents Ukraine at the peace talks in Minsk, Be­larus, said on June 4 in par­lia­ment that Ukraine is ready to re­lease 23 Rus­sian na­tion­als con­victed in Ukraine in ex­change for Sentsov, Olek­sandr Kolchenko, who was sen­tenced for 10 years in the same case, as well as Stanislav Klykh and Pavlo Hryb.

His­to­rian and jour­nal­ist Klykh, sen­tenced to 20 years in pri­son for al­legedly fight­ing in first Chechen war in Rus­sia, has se­ri­ous men­tal prob­lems which he ac­quired af­ter tor­ture by Rus­sian law en­force­ment.

Univer­sity stu­dent Hryb, 19, was ab­ducted from Be­larus by the Fed­eral Se­cu­rity Ser­vice, the Rus­sian suc­ces­sor to the Soviet KGB. He was ac­cused of ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity and faces up to 10 years in pri­son. He is suf­fer­ing health prob­lems. “Pavlo needs a spe­cial med­i­cal regime and a spe­cial diet, which he can’t get in pri­son,” his fa­ther Igor Hryb said.

Apart from Sentsov, there are at least two other Ukrainian pris­on­ers who cur­rently re­main on hunger strike, To­mak said. They are Volodymyr Balukh, a pro-Ukrainian ac­tivist, con­victed in Crimea and sen­tenced to for 3 years and 7 months and Olek­sandr Shumkov, who was con­victed in Rus­sia for in­volve­ment with the Right Sec­tor, a na­tion­al­ist Ukrainian or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Gerashchen­ko didn't name the 23 Rus­sians kept in Ukrainian pris­ons. The only name known defini­tively is Kyrylo Vyshyn­sky, who worked at the Kyiv of­fice of the Rus­sian pro­pa­gan­dist RIA-Novosti news agency. He was ar­rested by the Se­cu­rity Ser­vice of Ukraine, or SBU, on May 15. Ukraine’s prose­cu­tors ac­cuse Vyshyn­sky, who has both Ukrainian and Rus­sian cit­i­zen­ship, of state trea­son for work for Rus­sian state pro­pa­ganda.

More Krem­lin pris­on­ers

The num­ber of Ukrainian pris­on­ers is grow­ing ev­ery year. Two Crimean Tatar ac­tivists were ar­rested in Bakhchis­aray on May 21: Server Mustafayev, who co­or­di­nated Crimean Sol­i­dar­ity, the Crimean Tatar civil move­ment formed in 2016 to sup­port po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers and those fam­i­lies, and Edem Smailov, who is a re­li­gious leader of a Crimean Tatar com­mu­nity in Bakhchis­aray.

They were ac­cused of links to Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Is­lamist move­ment banned in Rus­sia, based on se­cret FSB record­ings in a mosque.

“Now they face up to 15 years in jail, which is more than for a mur­der,” said Kurbe­di­nov, a Crimean Tatar lawyer and mem­ber of Crimean Sol­i­dar­ity.

The crim­i­nal­iz­ing of po­lit­i­cal move­ments, like Hizb ut-Tahrir or Right Sec­tor, is a com­mon strat­egy used by Rus­sian law en­force­ment to per­se­cute the ac­tivists or sim­ply to cre­ate the im­age of fight­ing against ter­ror­ism, To­mak said.

“A per­son may be sen­tenced for ter­ror­ism even if he has never com­mit­ted or even planned any vi­o­lent ac­tions,” To­mak said, adding that 45 out of 71 Ukrainian po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers are held un­der this pre­text.

Hope for free­dom

Putin has re­leased only nine Ukrainian po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers since Rus­sia launched Ukraine in 2014.

The Ukrainian govern­ment se­cured the free­dom of Nadiya Savchenko, Hen­nadiy Afanasiyev and Yuriy Soloshenko. Turkey in­ter­vened to se­cure the re­leae of Crimean Tatars Akhtem Chiy­goz and Ilmi Umerov. Yuriy Yat­senko was re­leased from Rus­sian pri­son thanks to the ef­forts of his lawyer. Yuriy Ilchenko man­aged to es­cape home ar­rest in Crimea and reach main­land its war against Ukraine. Khaiser Dzhemilev, the son of Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, and Red­van Suleimanov were re­leased af­ter serv­ing their pri­son terms.

How­ever the Sentsov saga turns out, he is al­ready pro­vid­ing pow­er­ful in­spi­ra­tion and hope to fam­i­lies of Ukrainian po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers.

One of them is Yevhen Panov, a for­mer vol­un­teer fighter in eastern Ukraine who was cap­tured while en­ter­ing Crimea. He was there to help evac­u­ate one fam­ily to the main­land.

FSB of­fi­cers tor­tured Panov for four days and charges him with plan­ning ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Crimea. Panov is jailed in Sim­fer­opol and faces up to 20 years in pri­son.

Panov’s brother Igor Kotelianet­s be­lieves the Rus­sian FSB made up the case.

“We will do all pos­si­ble to make him free through the pris­oner ex­change,” he said.

Peo­ple hold posters with por­traits of Oleg Sentsov at the Kyiv’s main Maidan Neza­lezh­nosti Square on June 2 to show their sup­port for the Crimean film­maker, im­pris­oned af­ter a Krem­lin show trial on ter­ror­ism charges. Sentsov, a fierce of Rus­sia's an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, was sen­tenced to 20 years in pri­son in 2015. He is now on a hunger strike. (Oleg Pe­tra­siuk)


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