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EU parliament calls to release Sentsov and all Ukrainian political prisoners of the Kremlin

At least 70 Ukrainians are jailed for political reasons in Russia and occupied Crimea.

The EU parliament has overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling on Russia to “immediately and unconditionally” release Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and the circa 70 Ukrainian political prisoners he is on hunger strike for. On 14 June 2018, 455 MEPs voted in favor, 106 against, RFE/RL journalist Rikard Jozwiak reported.

The timing of the resolution could not be more apt, as on voting day Sentsov was 32 days into his hunger strike and had to be taken into intensive care. It was also the opening day of the World Cup in Russia. The filmmaker launched the strike on 14 May, vowing to stop only when Russia releases all Ukrainian political prisoners it is holding. He was determined not to back down, telling his lawyer that if he dies before or during the Cup, “it will create a [positive] resonance in favor of other political prisoners.”

The resolution, supported by the overwhelming majority of parliamentarians, was authored by MEPs from five political groups constituting the liberal democratic majority in the legislative body of the EU. These include, in particular, the factions of the European People’s Party, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the European Conservatives and Reformists, as well as the Greens.

The joint motion calls on Russia to release Oleg Sentsov and all other illegally detained Ukrainian citizens in Russia and on the Crimean peninsula, saying that there are more than 70 such political prisoners.

Tellingly, the last EU resolution on the matter, adopted in October 2017, mentions just 47 political prisoners. In just under 9 months, the number of Ukrainian political prisoners has grown by 50%.

Separately, it expresses solidarity with the filmmaker and notes that another political prisoner, Volodymyr Balukh, is also on hunger strike since 19 March, draws attention that many political prisoners have been tortured to extract false testimonies, and draws attention that recently Russia had detained several Crimean Tatars in occupied Crimea.

Harrowing examples of such torture are available in the appeals of Mykola Karpiuk and Stanislav Klykh to the European Court of Human Rights.

It calls upon the Russian authorities to give the detained proper medical attention and abstain from force-feeding the hunger strikers, a Soviet practice that amounts to torture. This is especially pertinent to the case of Pavlo Hryb, a Ukrainian teenager which the Russian FSB kidnapped from Belarus (!) and is charging with terrorism. The young man has a serious health condition which is being ignored in the Russian pretrial detention center, and he is being denied of buying the essential medication he needs with his own money.

Importantly, it emphasizes that Russian courts don’t have powers to judge in occupied Crimea, which makes the sentences passed there illegitimate. This is especially pertinent to the ever-growing list of Crimean Tatar political prisoners accused of membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir. This peaceful pan-Islamic organization is legal in Ukraine but baselessly criminalized in Russia. Russia’s persecution of Crimean Tatars for presumed membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir in occupied Crimea constitutes the imposition of the occupying state’s criminal law in the territories it is occupying – a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

As well, the resolution calls to free Oyub Titiev, Director of the Human Rights Centre Memorial in the Chechen Republic, and all other political prisoners in the Russian Federation, and for Russia to stop harassing Memorial. Memorial, one of Russia’s leading human rights NGOs which monitors cases of political prisoners in Russia, has faced reprisals after being classified a “foreign agent” – a decision which came after Memoria’s criticism of Russia’s “foreign agent” law, by which any NGO which takes part in “political activity” and receives money from abroad must declare itself a foreign agent.

The resolution calls the EU to express greater solidarity with Russian NGOs working in human rights, democracy, and rule of law.

As for practical measures related to Ukrainian political prisoners, the resolution calls upon the EU’s Special Representative for Human Rights to pay continuous attention to the human rights situation in occupied Crimea and eastern Ukraine, upon the delegation of the EU and embassies of EU member states to monitor the trials of human rights defenders; and for the EU Council and Member States to maintain sanctions against Russia, as well as consider targeted sanctions against Russian officials responsible for imprisoning the political prisoners.

Other versions of this resolution envisioned more stringent measures from the EU’s side, including the elaboration of an EU framework to adopt these targeted sanctions, and a call upon EU governments to boycott the World Cup. However, a compromise version of the text was adopted in the joint motion, which “calls on the EU to make a statement to condemn human rights violations in Russia and the attempt to hide them under the cover of the FIFA World Cup.”

Currently, nine countries have announced a diplomatic boycott of the World Cup in Russia:  Australia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Japan, Poland, Sweden, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom. In total, teams from 31 countries, apart from Russia, will participate in the competition. Recently, world intellectuals have released an open letter calling upon leaders of governments to boycott the event.

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