WASHINGTON -- Oleh Sentsov, the Ukrainian film director who was held in Russian prisons for more than five years, will be meeting with officials on Capitol Hill this week as he seeks to persuade the United States to take a tougher stance on human rights abuses in Crimea and the militarization of the peninsula.
Sentsov, who was freed by Russia in a prisoner swap with Ukraine in September, will meet with State Department officials, members of Congress and attend a meeting of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, he said at a briefing at the Ukraine Embassy in Washington on January 27. He will be joined by other Ukrainian human rights activists.
The 43-year old said Russia continues to hold hundreds of political prisoners in occupied Crimea and eastern Ukraine as well as in Russia itself, with many kept in inhumane conditions and subject to torture. He is hoping U.S. pressure will help get them released.
“They are not receiving normal food, they are not receiving medical attention. It is really an underground pit,” he said of the prisoners.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 following the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych, and backed separatists in the Ukraine’s eastern provinces, setting off a war that has killed more than 13,000 since April of that year.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was swept to power last year amid promises to end the war, won the release of 35 Ukrainian political prisoners including Sentsov in September and then another 76 from separatist-controlled regions in December as part of a swap with Russia.
Zelenskiy has promised a third swap to free political prisoners held in Crimea, though no time frame has been given.
Russia still holds 96 political prisoners, most of whom were detained in Crimea, including 69 Crimean Tatars, according to Ukrainian NGOs. Anywhere from 101 to 184 are still held in the separatist-controlled regions, according to NGOs and the Ukrainian government.
The freeing of Crimean prisoners may prove more difficult because those individuals are now considered Russian citizens following the annexation, said Andriy Kurkov, president of Pen Ukraine Center, an NGO that seeks to protect freedom of speech.
Moreover, the prisoners held in Crimea are not well known, making it difficult to round up international support, he said.
“There are no well highlighted cases of Crimean Tatars. They don’t have celebrity prisoners among them. If some cases could be highlighted in the [United] States and become almost symbolic representatives of this group, it would be much easier for the Ukrainian government to talk about possible exchange of Crimean Tatars,” he said.
Tamila Tasheva, the coordinator of CrimeaSOS organization, said the situation in Crimea has fallen off the international radar screen as the world focuses on the peace talks between Russia and Ukraine to settle the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
“We don’t have a communications platform for Crimea. We don’t have many countries that support Crimean projects” such as supporting local NGOs, she said. “It is a problem.”
Sentsov, a 2018 Sakharov prize laureate, is now trying to use his international recognition to help draw more U.S. and global attention to the situation in Crimea.
Russia agreed to release prisoners last year amid international pressure, the Ukrainian activists said.
The filmmaker and his fellow activists traveled to the UN headquarters in New York on January 24 to discuss developments on the peninsula with diplomats from various countries.
Following his meetings in Washington, Sentsov will give a speech in Utah at the Sundance Film Festival, the largest independent film festival in the United States.
The United States can maintain that pressure on Russia to release the Crimean prisoners by imposing sanctions and using its global influence, said Voldoymyr Yelchenko, Ukraine’s new ambassador to the United States.
Most countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are “quite indifferent” to the Crimean issue and see it as a problem that Russia and Ukraine must solve on their own, Yelchenko said.
“But we understand that without more sanctions and international pressure it will never be resolved,” he said.
The activists will ask officials to impose sanctions on officials in Russia and Crimea responsible for human rights abuses on the peninsula and raise concerns about the growing Russian military presence on the island, the ambassador and activists said.
“Crimea is gradually turning into a huge military base. What for? What is Russia preparing for,” Yelchenko said.
They will also ask the State Department to nominate another envoy to Ukraine after Kurt Volker stepped down in September amid the House of Representatives' impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump, said Maria Tomak, co-founder of the Ukrainian NGO Media Initiative for Human Rights.
The activists’ trip to Washington comes just days after National Public Radio reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insinuated that Americans don’t care about Ukraine.
Yelchenko said he wasn’t going to rush to judge Pompeo’s statement.
“Officially, we know quite well that Ukraine has very strong bipartisan support” in Congress as well as “strong support” in the State Deparment,” he said.
Yelchenko will meet with Pompeo later this week in Kyiv as he makes his first official visit to Ukraine since becoming the nation’s top diplomat in 2018.
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