Support Growing for Jailed Ukrainian Director on Hunger Strike in Russia

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Oleg Sentsov during his trial

The Toronto film festival and the Canadian city's Luminato arts event are the latest to issue statements calling for the release of Oleg Sentsov.

The Toronto International Film Festival and the city's Luminato arts festival have issued a joint statement calling for the release of jailed Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov, who Monday entered his 36th day of hunger strike in a Russian prison.

The move is the latest expression of support for the imprisoned director from within the international film world and comes just days after author and screenwriter Stephen King added his name to an open letter by PEN America calling for Sentsov's release.

Prominent organizations and film industry figures backing calls for Sentsov's release include the European Film Academy; British directors Mike Leigh, Stephen Daldry and Ken Loach; German filmmakers Volker Schlondorff and Wim Wenders; British actor Patrick Stewart; Hollywood star Johnny Depp; and Russian activists/Pussy Riot founders Masha Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.

Last week the European Parliament issued an official statement urging the release of Sentsov and other Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia.

French president Emmanuel Macron has also voiced his support for the filmmaker's cause.

The statement signed by Toronto head Piers Handling, Josephine Ridge, artistic director of Luminato and Anthony Sargent, Luminato's CEO, said: "As organizations that vehemently believe in the right, value and necessity of artistic and political expression, Sentsov and other political prisoners have been denied their basic human rights and their detention is a serious violation of international law.

"As the world's attention turns to Russia for the World Cup, we urge the international artistic community and Canadian government to join us in calling for the immediate release of Mr. Sentsov and 70 additional Ukrainian political prisoners."

The statement was prepared in partnership with Natalia Kaliada, co-founder of the Belarus Free Theater, which is staging a theatrical version of Sentsov's story Burning Doors in Toronto next week as part of the Luminato Festival.

Last week Kaliada met with Sentsov's sister Natalia Kaplan in Ukraine and said: "It's clear that the time for 'just words' has passed. What we need now are urgent and immediate actions to ensure that Oleg is released."

She added: "This is not the time for festivities and comradery at the World Cup in Russia. It's time to leverage political pressure. It’s time for moral politicians to speak up and save human lives in Russia."

Sentsov was seized by Russian security forces after Moscow forcibly annexed Crimea in 2014, accused of a terrorist plot to blow up a statue of Lenin and of setting fire to the offices of a Kremlin-loyal political party. He was taken to Russia where — treated as a Russian citizen although he holds a Ukrainian passport — the director was tried by a military court and sentenced to 20 years in prison, based on falsified evidence and witness statements that were later retracted.

Sentsov, who is currently serving his sentence in a high- security prison known as the Polar Bear in Russia's Far North Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, announced a hunger strike May 14, calling for the release of other jailed Ukrainians he says are, like him, political prisoners.

Although Sentsov's health has suffered after four years in a harsh prison regime, the director is understood to have rigorously prepared himself to endure a long hunger strike that would coincide with the opening of the World Cup, June 14.

He is on record as stating that he is prepared to die for the cause of freedom of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russian jails.

"There have been mixed reports on the state of Oleg's health in recent days, and information is hard to come by," Irish/U.K. producer Mike Downey told The Hollywood Reporter.

Downey, who is deputy chairman of the European Film Academy and active in the campaign calling for Sentsov's release, added: "Lyudmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian ombudsman, had been due to visit Sentsov last week, but was refused access to the prison. The latest news is that after more than a month on hunger strike, Oleg continues to take liquds and has an IV line with a full range of nutrients, proteins and vitamins and is holding up. Tatyana Moskalkova, Russia's human rights commissioner, said Friday that Sentsov's condition is satisfactory, but it remains to be seen if her request to the Federal Penitentiary Service to permit an independent health examination by Russian and Ukrainian doctors is approved."