As the World Cup begins, Russia should free Oleg Sentsov
AS YOU settle down to watch the World Cup in Russia, remember Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director serving a 20-year sentence in a prison camp in Siberia. He has committed no crime. Rather, he was jailed for protesting against Vladimir Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the war Russia’s president unleashed in eastern Ukraine four years ago. On May 14th Mr Sentsov started a hunger strike demanding the release of all 64 Ukrainian political prisoners from Russian jails. The opening of the World Cup on June 14th was Mr Sentsov’s 32nd day without food. He is rapidly acquiring the moral stature once accorded to people like Anatoly Marchenko, a Soviet dissident who was on hunger strike for 117 days and died soon after he ended it in December 1986.
World leaders supported Mr Sentsov, though they could clearly do more. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, raised the case with Mr Putin. PEN America, a writers’ organisation, and dozens of artists in Russia and in the West have called for his release. One Western leader who has not done so is President Donald Trump. Instead, last week he called for Russia to return to the G7. It was expelled for the seizure of Crimea, which, in his words, “happened a while ago”.
Mr Sentsov’s plight is a reminder that the struggle goes on. He is an ethnically Russian-Ukrainian citizen who was born in Crimea and considered it to be part of the Ukrainian state that emerged from the Soviet collapse in 1991. (Nearly everyone apart from the Russian government shares this view.) In 2014 he joined the movement that toppled Viktor Yanukovych, a thuggish autocrat fond of gold chandeliers. Mr Sentsov was in Crimea later that year when Russian soldiers in plain uniform staged a coup there. Mr Putin lied when he said that they were not Russian troops, just as he lied later that Russia was protecting ethnic Russians against Ukrainian “fascists”.
Mr Sentsov organised rallies against the annexation. The Russian security services arrested him and took him to Russia, where he was charged with “terrorism”. Mr Putin’s enforcers claim that he plotted to blow up a statue of Lenin and set fire to a door of the office in Crimea of Russia’s ruling party. He was innocent—the main witness said he had been forced to give false testimony, and withdrew his statement in court. Nor was there a terrorist act. Lenin’s statue was not blown up, and no one was injured in the fire. The aim of Mr Sentsov’s show trial was to reinforce Mr Putin’s narrative of Crimea’s “liberation” and to strike fear into those who dispute it.
Mr Putin’s regime, rather like its Soviet predecessor, is built on falsehood and the threat of violence. His actions in Crimea led to a war in eastern Ukraine which has claimed 10,000 lives, including those of 298 passengers and crew who perished on a Malaysian Airlines plane that was brought down by a missile supplied by the Russians almost four years ago. Thousands of Crimean Tatars have been terrorised, jailed or driven out of their homeland. Mr Sentsov is peacefully and courageously denouncing all this—and seems ready to die for his cause. It goes without saying that he should be freed immediately and that the world should loudly demand as much. Mr Putin is unlikely to heed such calls. But he has reason to fear the undeniable fact of the death in custody of a man like Mr Sentsov. As he no doubt recalls, the Soviet Union did not collapse in a hail of bullets, but because people stopped believing its lies.