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Ukrainian Film Director Stages Hunger Strike In Russian Jail During World Cup

Protesters hold a poster with the image of Ukrainian prisoner Oleg Sentsov during an opposition rally organized by Free Russia in Moscow, on June 10.
Evgeny Feldman
Protesters hold a poster with the image of Ukrainian prisoner Oleg Sentsov during an opposition rally organized by Free Russia in Moscow, on June 10.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin opened soccer's World Cup in Moscow's gleaming Luzhniki Stadium last week, it was a moment of personal triumph for a leader who craves the prestige of international sporting events.

But more than 1,000 miles away, in an Arctic prison camp nicknamed "Polar Bear," another drama was unfolding that Putin would prefer to keep out of the limelight: Oleg Sentsov, a 41-year-old Ukrainian filmmaker, was entering his second month of a hunger strike.

Sentsov, sentenced to 20 years on terrorism charges, is demanding the release of 64 Ukrainian nationals jailed after Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. American writer Stephen King and French President Emmanuel Macron are only the latest cultural and political figures to intervene on Sentsov's behalf, but their appeals are falling on deaf ears.

"The case of Oleg Sentsov is emblematic of the fact that in Russia today people can go to jail for peaceful resistance," said Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director at the Human Rights Watch office in Moscow. "Russia is in fact swept up in the worst human rights crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union, and that is something we cannot possibly ignore, no matter how much of a success the World Cup itself is."

International advocacy groups are trying to use the World Cup to focus at least some attention on the host nation's human rights record. Amnesty International says FIFA, soccer's world governing body, failed to conduct "any meaningful human rights due diligence" in awarding Russia with the tournament, which attracts hundreds of millions of viewers globally. Human Rights Watch is calling on FIFA to secure the release of Oyub Titiev, a human rights activist jailed as he faces drug possession charges in the Russian province of Chechnya.

In a speech to FIFA last week, Putin said "politics and sports don't mix" — and that Russia is interested in strengthening the "unlimited humanistic potential" of sports.

The Kremlin maintains that Russia is a democracy with rule of law and doesn't deserve to be singled out for its human rights record.

When he visited Putin in May, Macron brought up the case of Oleg Sentsov in vain. At a joint press conference afterward, Putin said Western journalists should be more concerned with the fate of Kirill Vyshinsky, the Kiev bureau chief of a Russian state news agency detained by Ukrainian authorities.

Earlier this month, Putin effectively snuffed out hope that Sentsov could be exchanged for Vyshinsky in a prisoner swap. Speaking during a nationally televised call-in show, the Russian president said the two cases were incomparable, since Sentsov was sentenced for planning a terrorist act, not for his activities as a filmmaker.

"Vladimir Putin could care less about international opinion, to put it bluntly," said Moscow political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. "What's more, it's convenient for him to position himself as someone who stands above the international community — or at least doesn't depend on it."

Putin has little incentive to make any conciliatory gestures, Oreshkin said, as Western leaders largely shun him and skipped the World Cup opening ceremony. The dignitaries who did attend came from former Soviet republics, Latin America and the Middle East.

Domestically, Oreshkin said, the party that is the World Cup can hardly be spoiled by Sentsov's plight as Russian state media dominate coverage of the tournament and are celebrating it as a Putin success story. "When there isn't enough bread, the need for circuses is even bigger," he said.

A native of Crimea, Sentsov was arrested at his home by the FSB, Russia's Federal Security Service, in May 2014.

Sentsov, who had found modest international acclaim as a filmmaker, was a vocal supporter of the pro-democracy Maidan protests in Ukraine's capital Kiev the previous winter. After Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovcyh, fled to Russia when the protests turned bloody, heavily armed Russian troops occupied and annexed Crimea in the ensuing power vacuum. Sentsov made no secret that he wouldn't recognize the legitimacy of the new Russian authorities.

Sentsov was charged with setting fire to the offices of pro-Kremlin organizations and planning to blow up a statue of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union.

The father of two protested his innocence throughout the trial, and one of the witnesses later retracted his testimony, saying he had given it under torture. Still, a Russian military court sentenced Sentsov to 20 years in a maximum-security prison.

"Oleg Sentsov clearly does not belong in jail. He was convicted of terrorism on bogus charges and never perpetrated any crime," said Lokshina of Human Rights Watch. "He is clearly serving those 20 years for political reasons — for resisting Russia's occupation of Crimea."

Putin has released prisoners in politically charged cases in the past, such as oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky or members of the performance art group Pussy Riot. But this time, analyst Oreshkin says that's unlikely for at least two reasons.

"For one, Putin has the image of a macho who won't yield to pressure. Secondly, he's afraid that if he shows weakness, it could be a sign to others to go on hunger strike, too," Oreshkin said.

Sentsov's lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, visited his client on Thursday and says he is in poor condition: Sentsov has lost almost 30 pounds and has started having kidney and heart problems.

"He looks very bad. He's pale. Because his body is weak, he has caught a cold. The doctors are afraid that if he gets sick, it will seriously complicate his condition," Dinze said in a phone interview.

For now, Sentsov has agreed to a daily IV drip of nutrients and is being held in the prison's medical ward, Dinze said. "The doctors say that if serious problems begin, they will feed him — with or without his permission."

"Sentsov doesn't plan to stop his hunger strike," Dinze added. "He plans to continue it."

Appeals to the Kremlin by fellow filmmakers, the European Parliament and the State Department have gone nowhere.

On Tuesday, a group of Russian cultural figures signed an open letter to Putin asking him to show mercy.

The Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, replied that public opinion can't change a court decision — and that Sentsov can only receive a presidential pardon if he asks for one.

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Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.