On a hunger strike in Russian prison: Oleg Sentsov demands the release of political prisoners

On a hunger strike in Russian prison: Oleg Sentsov demands the release of political prisoners

Together with partners in Ukraine and other human rights organizations, People in Need (PIN) urges the release of the famous Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov. A critic of the Russian occupation of Crimea, Sentsov was arrested 4 years ago in Crimea, and was later unfairly convicted in a politicized case to 20 years in prison. Held in the Labytnangi prison in Russian Siberia, he announced a hunger strike on May 14. His condition for ending it is the release of all 64 Ukrainian political prisoners currently being held on the Russian territory.

Sentsov did not time his announcement of the hunger strike randomly. In three weeks, the football World Cup is starting in Russia, an event which will draw the attention of millions of viewers from around the world. “Whether I die before or during the championship, it will bring the right publicity that can help other political prisoners,” says Sentsov.

“These are not plain words,” says Olena Ivantsiv, Head of the East European program of PIN's Centre for Human Rights and Democracy. “When Oleg declares something, he is ready to see it through to the very end.”

Shortly after the announcement of the hunger strike, PIN discussed Sentsov's case with the diplomatic representatives of Germany and Great Britain in Kiev. We ask them to watch the situation carefully and to demand from Russia the release of Sentsov and the other prisoners.

Šimon Pánek, Director of People in Need, also signed a letter addressed to the Czech Foreign Minister, Martin Stropnický. “We ask for your personal engagement in the matter of Oleg Sentsov as well as the other Ukrainian prisoners held in the Russian Federation, in an open, brave and timely manner,” states the letter.

Sentsov was detained in 2014 together with three other Ukrainians – Olexandr Kolchenko, Gennady Afanasyev and Alexei Chirnigo – and accused of seeking to carry out terrorist attacks. The trial lacked evidence, testimonies were obtained through violence.

Gennady Afanasyev first testified against Sentsov, but later proclaimed at court that he signed the testimonies under pressure. He was beaten, choked and tortured by electric shocks in his detention cell.

“They put a gas mask over my head, unscrewed the filter from the hose and blocked the air from coming in. When I began choking, they released the hose and sprayed something in it which made me vomit. Shortly afterwards, I was choking on my own vomit,” Afanasyev described shortly after his release.

PIN helped him to secure good quality legal representation and after his release from prison, they visited several politicians and representatives of international organization. Afanasyev talked about his experience of being held in a Russian prison to them.

Sentsov received the highest punishment, for allegedly being the leader of the group: 20 years behind bars. “A court of occupiers by definition cannot be just. Don’t take it personally, your honour!” said Sentsov during the day of his conviction. “A big betrayal sometimes begins with a small act of cowardice. Like when they put a bag over your head and beat you and after half an hour you are ready to renounce all your convictions and accuse yourself of anything, to accuse others, just so they will stop beating you. I don’t know what your convictions are worth if you aren’t ready to suffer for them, or even to die.”

Last year, PIN's One World Film Festival screened a documentary about Sentsov's case: The Trial: State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov.

The cases of Ukrainian citizens held for political reasons in prisons in Russia and in the annexed Crimea are checked on by People in Need on a continuous basis. In April, we opened an exhibition in the Permanent Representation of the Czech Republic to the EU in Brussels named Prisoners of the Kremlin. The exhibition shows the numbers of political prisoners in Russia with their personal stories.

These are people refusing the Russian annexation of the peninsula. An annexation that is in violation of international law.

Simultaneously, we take part in the campaign #LetMyPeopleGo that aims to protect Ukrainian political prisoners in Crimea and in the territory of the Russian Federation. The goal of the campaign is the release of all 64 prisoners, together with protecting them against torture and securing their right for a free access to a lawyer and medical care.

For more information about the issue, contact Zuzana Gruberová, Media Coordinator, Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, People in Need, zuzana.gruberova@peopleinneed.cz, +420 770 101 144

Author: PIN