Oleg Sentsov at the Labytnangi Penal Colony in Russia’s Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug on August 9, 2018. Photo by Russia’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, courtesy of KyivPost

Over 140 Days of Hunger for Political Freedom

By Tom Rozanov, volunteer at Eurasia Coordination Group, Amnesty International USA

Oleg Sentsov continues his open-ended hunger strike lasting over 140 days. His protest began on May 14, 2018, in objection to the detention of over 60 Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia and has brought global attention to his cause.

The 42-year-old Crimean filmmaker was a vocal opponent of Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison on widely contested charges of establishing a Crimean branch of a ‘terrorist group’ and organizing ‘terrorist acts’. His story began on the night of May 10, 2014, when members of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) violently arrested him at home. While detained, he was threatened with rape and murder in an effort to coerce him into confessing to organizing several bombings and other ‘acts of terror.’

Sentsov was denied access to a lawyer for 17 days post-detention. In court, no single piece of substantive evidence was presented to support the allegations against him. The prosecution’s key witness admitted that his confession was given under duress as he testified against Sentsov. Throughout the hearings, Sentsov maintained his innocence and denied all allegations. Nonetheless, Russian military court sentenced him to 20 years in prison on August 25, 2015.

Since his conviction, Sentsov has been transferred to several prisons throughout Russia. He is currently being held at Labytnangi Penal Colony located in the northern Siberian region of the country called Yamalo-Nenets. His health is under serious threat. In addition to losing teeth and hair from exposure to the prison’s harsh conditions, he has lost over 60 pounds and suffers from life-threatening heart and circulatory conditions. According to his cousin, Natalya Kaplan, despite the fact that Sentsov no longer expects to be released, he will not give up his strike.

He is described by family members as unyielding in his determination. In a letter he smuggled from prison in August 2016, Sentsov compares himself to a “nail that won’t bend.” In July 2018, Amnesty International was denied the right to visit him.

Sentsov is supported by human rights activists and artists from around the world, and his case brings attention to numerous human rights violations in Russia. Many cultural figures expressed solidarity with Sentsov at the 2018 Cannes International Film Festival. On the 100th day of his hunger strike, dozens of celebrities signed a plea published in the French newspaper Le Monde calling for his release, emphasizing that he could “die any minute.” The European Film Academy (EFA) also calls for Sentsov’s immediate release and is collecting funds for legal action and supporting his family.

Protestors outside the Russian Embassy in Kyiv hold posters calling for Moscow to release Oleg Sentsov. Courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

High-profile political figures and institutions are also active in effort to save Sentsov. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly called for his “immediate release,” and expressed concerns for Oleg’s health in a recent phone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in August.

Earlier this month, the head of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE, Ambassador Michael Kozak, began his opening statement by demanding that Russian authorities release all unlawfully imprisoned Ukrainians. U.S. Senators have called for Sentsov’s immediate release and U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, has advocated on his behalf.

Amnesty International calls for Sentsov’s immediate release and demands that, while detained, he has access to qualified health professionals, providing healthcare in line with medical ethics, support from human rights organizations, and legal assistance.

You can take action by writing a letter, sending an email, calling, faxing or tweeting: Ambassador Anatoly Antonov, Embassy of the Russian Federation. Address: 2650 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington DC 20007. Phone: 1 (202) 298 5700. Fax: 1 (202) 298 5735. Email: rusembusa@mid.ru. Twitter: @mfa_russia.

You can let us know you took action on the case! This way we can record your actions taken on the case and use that information in our advocacy. This is Urgent Action 170.15.

Also, please share #SaveOlegSentsov, and #FreeSentsov on your social media, and beyond.

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We've been fighting the bad guys since 1961 - you can join us! Official Amnesty International USA profile.