“Free the Kremlin’s hostages”

Demonstrators in London yesterday demanded that Russia release 70 Ukrainian political prisoners.

The picket was part of an international action to support the film director Oleg Sentsov, one of the 70, who has been on hunger strike since 14 May in the Labytnangi prison colony.

Sentsov, who was arrested in Crimea after it was annexed by Russia in 2014, was sentenced to 20 years on fabricated terrorism charges.

On 25 May, Oleksandr Shumkov, a Ukrainian serviceman taken forcibly to Russia and imprisoned there, started a hunger strike in support of Sentsov. And on 31 May they were joined on hunger strike by Oleksandr Kolchenko, an anarchist militant from Crimea tried together with Sentsov and sentenced to ten years.

Another Ukrainian prisoner in Russia, Volodymyr Balukh, a farmer jailed for possession of a Ukrainian flag in Russian-occupied Crimea, went on hunger strike on 19 March. From the 25th day of his action he started taking minimal nutrition – oat broth and a piece of bread each day – to avoid being force-fed.

The London picket was organised by Ukrainians studying and working in London, who were joined by British supporters. Rafis Kashapov, a civil society activist from the Tatarstan republic in Russia, recently ordered by a Russian court to desist from political activity, was there too.

News of the international campaign here: #FreeSentsov #SaveOlegSentsov #TheyAreStillThere #LetMyPeopleGo.

Sasha Dovzhyk, one of the organisers of the protest, said: “It’s a pleasant day in London, less so in Labytnangi colony, where Oleg Sentsov was brought to rot for 16 years after he had served four years on falsified charges in Russian prisons. It’s the 21st day of his hunger strike. He will not end it until all 70 Ukrainian political prisoners kept as hostages by the Kremlin are released.”

The World Cup starts in Russia on 14 June. The prisoners “are seeing the modern Russian Gulag from the inside: others are watching football games”.

The demands of the picket yesterday were:

  1. To the Russian authorities: to release Oleg Sentsov and all political prisoners.
  2. To G-7: to put the issue of release of Oleg Sentsov and all political prisoners to discussion during the 44th G-7 Summit, on June 8-9 in Canada. To initiate a separate negotiation process between Russia and Ukraine to release Ukrainian citizens convicted in Russia and the occupied Crimea for political reasons and to act as mediators in such negotiations.
  3. To the authorities of the UK: if it participates in the events around the FIFA World Cup, as well as in other official events, raise the issue of the status of human rights and political prisoners in Russia and the occupied Crimea.
  4. To civil society: to demand the release of political prisoners during the World Cup in Russia.
  5. To the Ukrainian authorities: to create a position of special representative on the rights of Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia and the occupied Crimea.

All who oppose war, and who believe in international solidarity and in siding with civil society against repression, should support the Ukrainian prisoners. GL, 3 June 2018.

■ Full list of Ukrainian prisoners here.

■ Reports on support by Russian activists for the Ukrainian political prisoners, on the Russian Reader here and here.

Letter to Russian president from writers in PEN America.

Why Sentsov is on hunger strike, on Open Democracy.

Report on repression in Crimea, on Open Democracy.

Anti-fascists in Russia threatened by state torturers.

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