NEW YORK—In the run-up to the World Cup, which will start June 14 with Russia serving as the host country, more than 50 writers, artists, journalists, and activists have signed a letter calling on President Putin to free Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned since 2014 after speaking out against the Russian annexation of Crimea.

An illustrious list of leading figures in the arts, literature, journalism, and activism, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Margaret Atwood, Patrick Stewart, Christiane Amanpour, Stephen Sondheim, B.J. Novak, and Salman Rushdie issued an open letter enjoining Russian President Vladimir Putin to release Sentsov immediately and unconditionally, and emphasizing the urgency of this request in light of Sentsov’s ongoing hunger strike, which he began on May 14.  

“As Russia prepares to host the World Cup in the coming weeks, the eyes of the world will be on the country,” the letter reads. “Sentsov’s campaign will rightly draw attention to the injustice of his detention and that of dozens of other political prisoners in Russia. He has told his lawyer he is willing to die to bring global attention to his cause.  In the spirit of this unifying global event, we therefore urge you to take this opportunity to make a powerful statement by releasing Oleg Sentsov immediately and unconditionally. His life depends on it.”

Oleg Sentsov was detained in Crimea in May 2014 and sentenced to 20 years in a Russian prison on charges of terrorism on August 25, 2015 in what appeared to many as a politically motivated case in retaliation for Sentsov’s outspoken criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Appeals against the original verdict were rejected by the Russian Supreme Court in November 2015 and June 2016. A request for Sentsov’s extradition to Ukraine was denied in October 2016 on the grounds that he had become a Russian citizen upon the annexation. He is currently serving out his sentence in Prison Colony No. 8, also called “Polar Bear Prison,” north of the Arctic Circle. In recent days it has been reported that he is now receiving supportive therapy, but his hunger strike continues.  

“The Russian Government has tried to silence Oleg Sentsov, but even from prison he continues to make his voice heard through words and actions—including this hunger strike—that demonstrate his enduring commitment to the cause of freedom. He must not pay for that cause with his life,” said Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America. “The World Cup is a global celebration, but it is also an opportunity to bring attention to the actions of the host government, and in this case, to the prolonged, unjust imprisonment of an artist and activist whose only crime was to exercise his right to freedom of expression. We hope that President Putin will seize this moment and act swiftly to save Sentsov’s life by releasing him and allowing him to return to Ukraine.” 

In 2017 PEN America awarded Oleg Sentsov the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, and on ​February 26, 2018, organized a Global Day of Action calling for his release. 

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