It was a grim milestone on Tuesday for Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov has he entered the 100th day of a prison hunger strike aimed at gaining the release of dozens of Ukrainians currently in Russian jails on charges he says are politically motivated.
Sentsov supporters held demonstrations outside of Russian embassies in cities across Europe calling for Sentsov’s immediate release, arguing his hunger strike had entered a final, dangerous phase.
Scattered events marking the day also took place in Russia. In Kazan, activists unfurled a banner that read “Freedom for Sentsov, 100 days” outside the city’s ancient Kremlin fortress.
In a park in central Moscow, about 30 protesters gathered to sing songs and hold signs as passersby made their way home from work.
One woman held a picture of Anatoly Marchenko, the Soviet-era dissident who died after a 117-day hunger strike in 1986, next to a fellow protester with a sign reading “We Don’t Want a Repeat.”
Soon thereafter, police moved in to make arrests. According to the local monitoring group OVD-Info, 10 activists were detained.
Sentsov began his hunger strike May 14 — a move timed to focus international attention on Russia’s human rights abuses ahead of the country’s hosting of the football World Cup.
From his cell in a remote penal colony in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District of northern Russia, Sentsov demanded the release of 64 Ukrainians swept up on spurious charges related to Russia’s ongoing proxy war in Ukraine. He has always insisted he is not seeking his own freedom.
Yet, over the ensuing months, the hunger strike has increasingly captured the world’s attention — coming to encapsulate the deep international fallout over Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula and proxy war in Ukraine beginning in 2014.
While western governments have joined Ukraine in condemning the move as an illegal annexation, Russian leaders have insisted the vast majority of Crimeans voted for what they call “reunification” in a referendum held amid Russia’s armed occupation of the peninsula.
Indeed, Sentsov argues his own troubles trace back to his opposition to the Russian occupation in his native Crimea.
He was arrested and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in 2015 — charged with terrorism for conspiring to set fire to the entrance of two office buildings and plotting to blow up a Soviet-era statue.
Even while Sentsov denied the charges, rights groups noted that no one was injured in the alleged attacks.
The U.S. soon joined the European allies, human rights groups and leading cultural figures from the world of film and literature in taking up Sentsov’s cause. In 2015, the U.S. Department of State labeled the case a “clear miscarriage of justice.”
More recently, European governments — including the European Union, France, and Britain — have openly pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene in the case.
Yet the Kremlin has remained impervious to outside pressure.
Earlier this month, the Kremlin rejected a clemency request by Sentsov’s family on the grounds that Sentsov himself must ask for leniency — something the filmmaker has thus far refused to do on the grounds he insists he has not committed any crime.
Meanwhile, family members who have visited Sentsov in prison say he has lost 30 kilograms and is determined to see his hunger strike “to the end.” Prison doctors, while administering what they call “supportive medical therapy,” have expressed concern over possible organ failure.
Yet prison officials have apparently attempted to cast doubt on the seriousness of Sentsov’s condition, claiming doctor examinations had determined Senstov’s health “satisfactory” in a report issued earlier this month.
Other Russian officials have insisted Sentsov should simply be force-fed should the need arise.
The clemency gamble
In Russia, human rights proponents have increasingly come to recognize the limits of western pressure and argued Sentsov’s survival hinged on lobbying the Kremlin by other means.
Several have urged Mr. Putin to fulfill an earlier public promise to push for a full prisoner amnesty between Ukraine and Russia, thereby luring Sentsov out of his demands while offering freedom to jailed Russian so-called volunteer soldiers captured while fighting with pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s east.
“If the process of prisoner exchanges begins, Sentsov will live,” insisted Zoya Svetova, a veteran journalist and member of a advisory council that lobbies the Kremlin on human rights, in a plea posted online.
That prospect, however remote, was welcomed by Svetlana Ageeva, whose son Victor was captured and sentenced by a Ukrainian court to 10 years on terrorism charges for fighting alongside the rebels in east Ukraine.
“Of course we all hope,” she told VOA in an interview by phone from her home in Russia’s Altai region, some 4,800 kilometers from Moscow.
“As a mother of a Russian soldier who hopes for his release from prison in Ukraine, I see how Ukrainian mothers hope the same for their sons jailed in Russia,” she said.
“Everyone should be freed.”