The British Foreign Office says it is “deeply concerned” about the welfare of four Ukrainians being held by Russia who are conducting hunger strikes to protest Moscow's detention of Ukrainian political prisoners.
“Their imprisonment, and that of many more Ukrainians who have been jailed by Russia, appears politically motivated,” the Foreign Office said in a statement on June 6.
The statement called for the “immediate release” of Oleh Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Oleksandr Shumkov, and Volodymyr Balukh.
The Foreign Office said the men were handed “lengthy jail sentences” for expressing opposition to Moscow's annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region following trials that "appeared to fall well short of international standards."
"These cases, including over 70 others against Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, underline the Russian Federation's systematic persecution of those who voice their opposition to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea," the statement said.
"Russia’s control over Crimea remains illegal and illegitimate, and is a flagrant violation of a number of Russia's international commitments," it added, referring to Moscow's seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker and Crimea native, is serving a 20-year prison term after being convicted on terrorism charges that he and human rights groups say were politically motivated. He started a hunger strike on May 14, demanding the release of 64 Ukrainian citizens he considers political prisoners.
A global campaign -- called the #SaveOlegSentsov campaign -- has been organized to demand the release of Sentsov, who is being held in the far-northern Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region.
Kolchenko, who was convicted at the same time as Sentsov, is serving a 10-year term.
The Memorial Human Rights Center says Shumkov is a political prisoner, adding that "there are strong grounds for believing that [he] was abducted on Ukrainian territory" and taken to Russia when he disappeared in August 2017.
Balukh is a pro-Kyiv activist imprisoned by Russian authorities in Crimea on charges of weapons and explosives possession in a case he says was politically motivated.
In March 2017, the European Parliament called on Moscow to free more than 30 Ukrainian citizens who were in prison or other conditions of restricted freedom in Russia, Crimea, and parts of eastern Ukraine that are controlled by Russia-backed separatists.