Ukraine official denied access to hunger-striker in Russian jail

Imprisoned filmmaker Oleg Sentsov timed his hunger strike to coincide with the month-long World Cup in Russia

Kiev (AFP) – Kiev protested to Moscow on Friday after a Ukrainian rights official was barred from visiting hunger-striking filmmaker Oleg Sentsov in a Russian prison amid growing concerns for his life.

The 41-year-old director has refused food since May 14 to demand Moscow release all Ukrainian political prisoners, timing his high-profile protest to coincide with the month-long World Cup in Russia.

The Ukrainian foreign ministry accused Russia of “insidious steps” after Kiev’s top rights official arrived at Sentsov’s high-security prison in the town of Labytnangi on the Arctic Yamal peninsula, but was denied access to him. 

“Oleg is starving,” Ukrainian foreign ministry spokeswoman Mariana Betsa said on Twitter. “We are protesting.”

Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko discussed a possible exchange of prisoners, raising hopes that Sentsov and others could be released during the World Cup. 

The two leaders then agreed that Kiev and Moscow’s ombudsmen would visit their two countries’ prisoners. 

Ukraine’s ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova said she went straight to Labytnangi because Sentsov was Kiev’s top priority due to his deteriorating health. 

But Russian prison officials told her she could not see the filmmaker, she said.

“According to some accounts, he is in critical condition,” Denisova said in a statement, adding that talks with Moscow “have reached deadlock”.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov could not say Friday why the Ukrainian official was not allowed to visit Sentsov, but he stressed that the filmmaker was convicted of a grave crime.

A vocal Kremlin critic, Sentsov was detained in Crimea in 2014 after Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine. 

Supporters say Moscow wanted to make an example of him with a 20-year prison sentence on charges of masterminding arson attacks, which the filmmaker denies.

Moscow’s top rights official Tatyana Moskalkova told the state news agency TASS that Denisova had violated Russian legislation by demanding access to a citizen of Russia and not Ukraine.

While Sentsov considers himself a Ukrainian national, Moscow insists he is a Russian citizen.

Doctors have threatened to start force-feeding Sentsov through a stomach tube, a procedure many activists describe as a form of torture.

On Thursday the United States, France, Britain and 35 other countries asked UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to raise the case of Sentsov and dozens of other Ukrainian prisoners during his talks with Putin next week.