Hunger-striking Ukrainian filmmaker ready to die in Russian jail during Cup


Tue, Jun 12, 2018 - Page 6

When the World Cup kicks off in Russia on Thursday, Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, who is serving a 20-year prison sentence in Russia, will have spent a month without food.

Sentsov says he is ready to die and the worst effects of his high-profile hunger strike are expected to kick in just as the football extravaganza gets into high gear.

He is demanding the Moscow release dozens of Ukrainian political prisoners.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently hinted that backdoor talks to exchange prisoners with Kiev were apparently under way, raising hopes for the release of the 41-year-old filmmaker and others languishing in Russian jails.

However, details remain scarce and it is still anyone’s guess whether Ukraine and Russia will agree on a swap — and even if they do, whether it will be in time to save Sentsov’s life.

“It would be really bad for Putin if these negative things that could become top world news happened during the tournament,” Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said.

Sentsov has carefully prepared for the protest, which he began on May 14, reducing his food intake over several weeks in the high-security prison in Russia’s far north.

“I will not back down,” he said in a letter published on Saturday.

Doctors have told him that his kidneys may soon fail as the irreversible consequences of the hunger strike begin and have also threatened to start force-feeding him through a stomach tube.

Sentsov — who has agreed to be administered a glucose drip — has already lost about 8kg.

The director is best known for his film Gamer, which screened to critical acclaim at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2012.

A vocal Kremlin critic, Sentsov was detained in Crimea in 2014 after Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine. Supporters say Russia wanted to make an example of him with the stiff sentence on charges of masterminding arson attacks, which the filmmaker denies.

His cousin, Natalya Kaplan, has urged the West to intervene to save the father of two children.

She said Sentsov has struggled with health problems since childhood, but has always been a man of true grit.

Supporters have launched a global campaign to secure his release, staging protests in dozens of cities in Europe, the US and the Middle East. Several activists fasted in solidarity with him, but quickly stopped, admitting they were not strong enough.

Many are skeptical that the Kremlin was ready to release all Ukrainian political prisoners, with one supporter suggesting Sentsov could be just flown out of Russia.

Whether or not Sentsov is released, a crackdown on dissenters continues unabated, critics say.

Campaigners have called on FIFA to use its leverage with the Kremlin to address Russia’s rights abuses.

With global attention on Russia, Moscow “must decide what they want the legacy of this World Cup to be,” Amnesty International said.

Human Rights Watch added: “The FIFA World Cup starting on June 14, 2018, will take place during the worst human rights crisis in Russia since the Soviet era.”