Oleg Sentsov, the Ukraine filmmaker who was convicted in 2015 of plotting terrorist attacks and sentenced to 20 years in a Russian prison, is on day 24 of a hunger strike as artists and activists around the world continue to rally for his cause. Supporters demanding Sentsov’s release include PEN America and the European Film Academy. The former addressed a letter to Russian president Vladimir Putin this week while EFA has been pleading on his behalf for years, ramping up efforts recently to free the Gaamer director. Public protests have also ramped up in the past week in places like Krakow, Kiev and Tel Aviv.
That Sentsov’s hunger strike and the increased media attention is happening in the run-up to the World Cup is not a coincidence, Sentsov’s cousin Natalya Kaplan told The Independent. “His exact words to us were that if he dies during the World Cup he would be happy for having drawn attention to Ukrainian political prisoners.” The soccer tournament begins next week, one month to the day after Sentsov began refusing food, and is one of the globe’s biggest sporting events.
Sentsov was involved in supporting the 2014 Euro Maidan protests in Kiev and opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He was arrested by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation at his home in May 2014 and brought to Moscow where he was detained awaiting trial for over a year. When the trial began in July 2015, the prosecution’s key witness retracted his testimony as “given under pressure and duress.” The next month, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years.
Throughout the past four years, the European Film Academy has been active in raising public awareness. Festivals such as Venice, Warsaw and San Sebastian also picked up the “empty chair” idea of including Sentsov on their juries to attract attention. Along with letters sent to Putin and other officals, the EFA joined with the French Directors’ Guild to craft a petition whose signatories included Jacques Audiard, Juan Antonio Bayona, Costa Gavras, Stellan Skarsgård and Venice Film Festival chief Alberto Barbera.
The EFA’s recently updated Letter to Free Oleg Sentsov was drafted by Stephen Daldry, Bertrand Tavernier, Mike Leigh, Aki Kaurismaki, Wim Wenders and more.
Among the signatories of PEN America’s letter are Christiane Amanpour, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, Jay McInerny, BJ Novak, Salman Rushdie, Stephen Sondheim, Patrick Stewart and Scott Turow.
Sentsov began his hunger strike on May 14 and has said he is not seeking his own release but is taking the drastic step in order to demand the release of all Ukranian political prisoners currently held in Russia. Sentsov’s lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, who visited his client on Monday, told Radio Free Europe that Sentsov may be subject to force feeding if his organs begin to fail.