It is exactly 100 days since Ukrainian filmmaker and Kremlin hostage, Oleg Sentsov began his hunger strike, demanding that Russia release all its Ukrainian political prisoners. Demonstrations in solidarity will be taking place outside Russian embassies throughout the world, yet the Kremlin appears to be deaf to all calls for his release and just keeps churning out cynical lies, presumably aimed at justifying Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intransigence.
Sentsov himself has written to his cousin that she and others should stop assuring him that freedom is close, as he no longer believes that. A poignant letter, dated 14 August, has just been received by RosUznik, the civic initiative for writing to political prisoners. Sentsov sends greetings to everybody, and writes:
“Thank you very much for your greetings on my birthday [back on 13 July] which I received from various people via the RosUznik site (the letters came with a long delay). Thank you for your warm words and greetings. I will try not to let you all down, to not give up and to not die. Though I guess of those three wishes, I will only be able to fulfil at most two (with the symbol for a smiling face).” He goes on to thank everybody for supporting not only him, but all the other political prisoners.
Sentsov also phoned his mother recently for her birthday. She is scarcely able to walk after a fall in the night when extraordinarily thoughtless people decided to phone her to ask if the report that her son was on a plane leaving prison was true. The information, passed to a Novaya Gazeta journalist, proved to be a cruel lie. By the time Sentsov phoned, his mother was so distressed that she only really began to understand that it was him when he asked about his daughter Alina, and son Vlad, and began giving instructions!
It was at the suggestion of Alexei Medvedev, a Russian film critic, that Lyudmila Sentsova wrote to Putin asking him to ‘pardon’ her son. As reported, the refusal letter claimed that regulations demand that a request for a pardon come from Sentsov himself. The same excuse was given for rejecting the appeal sent by Archbishop Kliment, Head of the Crimean Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate. The reason given was quite simply, and evidently, untrue. The Russian President has absolute power to decide who should receive a pardon. Moreover, Putin has already ‘pardoned’ three Ukrainian political prisoners – Nadiya Savchenko; Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov who had not submitted any such request.
There was just as much hypocrisy in the response by Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, to questions about Sentsov. He reminded them that Sentsov had been convicted of terrorism, a serious crime.
It would be serious, but there was no terrorism. There was, in fact, no crime at all. It is noteworthy that even those Russian sources that do assume some ‘guilt’ claim only that Sentsov wanted to blow up a monument (to Vladimir Lenin), which would, even had he had such a plan, not constitute terrorism.
Russia’s abuse of its legislation on terrorism with respect to Sentsov and three other opponents of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea was condemned soon after the men’s arrests, then during the ‘trial’ of Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko and again after the 20-year sentence passed on Sentsov and 10-year on Kolchenko.
However, condemnation differs little from expressions of ‘deep concern’. It sounds good, it is quotable, but it takes more to impinge upon a Russian leader who has flagrantly violated international law, who has almost certainly ordered the killing of enemies on other countries’ territories and who has committed war crimes in Ukraine and Syria.
It is possible, as Russian diplomats have reportedly told French counterparts, that Putin is willing to let Sentsov die as a warning to others. Another possibility is that Putin is driven by a wish for revenge because of Sentsov’s statement in court about not serving a long sentence because the regime of the “blood-stained dwarf" would end sooner.. A quick glance at Kremlin photos of Putin and of his closest associates makes it clear that his shortness is something he does not like to see accentuated. Putin’s motives do not need to be Sentsov’s death sentence. Western countries have levers that they could apply. They probably also have Russians whose release the Kremlin is interested in. Such a deal was almost certainly brokered between Russia and Turkey seemingly resulting in the exchange of Chiygoz and Umerov for two suspected Russian state-sponsored killers.
Sentsov began his hunger strike a month before the World Cup which should have been withdrawn from Russia, but was not. Instead of taking the chance then, as well as later, to put real pressure on the Kremlin, Putin has received PR opportunities in the form of meetings with the Presidents of France and the USA, and with the German Chancellor. The Kremlin’s hefty support for far-right parties, as well as for Donald Trump, are bearing fruit, as the pictures of Putin dancing with Austria’s foreign minister Karin Kneissl on 18 August made clear.
Russia’s economy is plummeting, as is Putin’s popularity after recent economic measures, and while sanctions are hurting. They could hurt more, and could hit harder at Putin himself and all his closest entourage, whose vast fortunes are hidden away in the West.
Sentsov is on hunger strike on behalf of at least 70 Ukrainians illegally imprisoned since the beginning of Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine in 2014. The number of political prisoners is inexorably rising, and Sentsov’s death will only unleash further repression in occupied Crimea unless Russia is held to answer. Western governments do have levers and can use them to convince Putin that not releasing Sentsov will hurt him and his cronies personally.
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