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Oleg Sentsov is a Ukrainian filmmaker and a political prisoner in Russia who's currently on a hunger strike. Last week, as Russia was getting all this attention for hosting the World Cup, the American writer Stephen King took to Twitter to demand Sentsov's release. He's one of a growing number of cultural figures calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to free the political dissident, calls that are falling on deaf ears. Here's NPR's Lucian Kim.
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LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: When the Russian national anthem sounded at the World Cup opening ceremony last week, it was a moment of intense pride for President Vladimir Putin and millions of his fellow citizens. But more than a thousand miles away from the Moscow stadium in a prison camp on the Arctic Circle, imprisoned film director Oleg Sentsov was entering his second month of a hunger strike. The 41-year-old is demanding the release of 64 Ukrainian nationals jailed after Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine four years ago.
TANYA LOKSHINA: The case Oleg Sentsov is emblematic of the fact that in Russia today, people can go to jail for peaceful resistance.
KIM: Tanya Lokshina is Russia program director at Human Rights Watch in Moscow.
LOKSHINA: Russia is in fact swept up in the worst human rights crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union. And that is something we cannot possibly ignore no matter how much of a success the World Cup itself is.
KIM: Putin has repeatedly said that Russia believes in the principle of sports without politics. The Kremlin asserts that Russia is a democracy with rule of law and doesn't deserve being singled out for its human rights record. When French President Emmanuel Macron visited Russia in May, he brought up the case of Oleg Sentsov in vain. During a nationally televised call-in show this month, Putin explained why Sentsov couldn't be swapped for a Russian journalist held in Ukraine.
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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: Putin said the two cases are completely different, as Sentsov was sentenced for planning a terrorist act and not for his activities as a filmmaker.
A native of Crimea, Sentsov was arrested two months after Russia annexed his homeland. He was charged with setting fire to the offices of pro-Kremlin organizations and planning to blow up a statue of Vladimir Lenin. Sentsov protested his innocence, and one of the witnesses later retracted his testimony, saying he had made it under torture. But a Russian military court still sentenced Sentsov to 20 years in a maximum security prison.
LOKSHINA: Oleg Sentsov clearly does not belong in jail. He never perpetrated any crime. He is clearly those serving 20 years for political reasons, for resisting Russia's occupation of Crimea.
KIM: Putin has released prisoners in politically charged cases in the past. But this time, political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin says that's unlikely for two reasons.
DMITRY ORESHKIN: (Through interpreter) For one, Putin has the image of a macho who won't yield to pressure. Secondly, he's afraid that if he shows weakness, it could be a sign to others to go on hunger strike, too.
KIM: Sentsov's lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, visited his client on Thursday. He says Sentsov looks very bad, is starting to have kidney and heart problems, has lost about 30 pounds. But he says Sentsov's will isn't broken.
DMITRY DINZE: (Through interpreter) Sentsov doesn't plan to end his hunger strike. He plans to continue it. The doctors say that if serious health problems begin, they'll force-feed him.
KIM: Appeals to the Kremlin by fellow filmmakers, the European Parliament and the State Department have gone nowhere. On Tuesday, a group of Russian cultural figures signed an open letter to Putin asking him to show mercy. A Kremlin spokesman replied that public opinion can't change a court decision and that Sentsov can only receive a presidential pardon if he asks for it.
Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.
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