Oleg Sentsov, an internationally known Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in Siberia for his defense of Ukrainian Crimea, has been on a hunger strike for more than 110 days in the Russian penal colony Polar Bear. In a letter to his cousin Natalia Kaplan he wrote that he feels the end is near.
On Aug. 9, Sentsov’s mother asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to pardon her son. His office acknowledged receipt of the letter, but made no further comment. Dmitry Dinze, Sentsov’s lawyer, says he has been told that Russian authorities have no plans to release Sentsov because they believe his death will intimidate other prisoners from similar protests.
Sentsov launched his open-ended hunger strike May 14, demanding the release of over 70 Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russian jails. He consciously chose the date to coincide with the upcoming soccer World Cup in Russia, which started June 14. His goal was to use the media attention around one of the largest sports events in the world to call attention to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and politically motivated frame-ups of Ukrainians.
Sentsov took part in the popular Maidan mass movement that ousted the pro-Moscow regime of Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. When Moscow seized his native Crimea a month later, taking advantage of the presence of some 20,000 Russian troops posted there along with the Russian military’s Black Sea fleet, he actively opposed the occupation. He joined others in delivering supplies to Ukrainian army soldiers trapped in their barracks.
He was arrested in May of that year, along with Alexander Kolchenko, Gennady Afanasiev and Oleksiy Chirniy, also opponents of Moscow’s seizure of Crimea. They were tortured, beaten and framed up on false terrorism charges. Sentsov denounced the frame-up in his 2015 trial. “A court of occupiers by definition cannot be just,” he said.
The state’s frame-up case was based on confessions by Afanasiev and Chirniy obtained under torture. Sentsov and Kolchenko have maintained their innocence all along, as well as their support for Ukraine. “I don’t know what your beliefs can possibly be worth if you are not ready to suffer or die for them,” Sentsov told the court. He was sentenced to 20 years and Kolchenko to 10 years in prison.
When Afanasiev was dragged into court for his sentencing, he denounced his “confession,” saying it was a lie extracted by torture.
Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of the indigenous Tatar people of Crimea, spent a total of 15 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps between 1966 and 1986 for his struggle for the rights of the Tatars. In 1975 he started a 303-day hunger strike, surviving because he was force-fed. He was convinced to end it, he says, by the argument, “Your death will only benefit our enemies.”
On May 25, Dzhemilev asked Sentsov to end his hunger strike. “There are not that many courageous people. It’s very important to save their lives. After the invaders leave the Crimea, such people will be needed in Crimea,” he said.
Dzhemilev succeeded with the goal he had for his hunger strike — to put the spotlight on the situation for the Crimean Tatars.
“In this regard we can say Sentsov has achieved certain results,” Dzhemilev told the media July 4. “A lot of information is now in the press around Sentsov and around the illegal repression of the invaders.”
Sentsov’s case has gotten publicity worldwide and he has received substantial support. “Worldwide Day of Action” events have been organized in cities around the world, including in Russia. The European Film Academy, PEN America and Amnesty International have called for his release. Directors Pedro Almodovar, Mike Leigh and Wim Wenders, authors Margaret Atwood, Stephen King and Salman Rushdie, Pussy Riot and dozens of other prominent filmmakers, actors and writers have expressed support for him.