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Imprisoned Ukrainian Film Director Oleh Sentsov Wins Sakharov Prize


Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov at a court hearing in Rostov-on-Don in August 2015
Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov at a court hearing in Rostov-on-Don in August 2015

The European Parliament has awarded Oleh Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director imprisoned in Russia after opposing Moscow's takeover of his native Crimea, with its prestigious 2018 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

"Through his courage and determination, by putting his life in danger, the filmmaker Oleh Sentsov has become a symbol of the struggle for the release of political prisoners held in Russia and around the world," European Parliament President Antonio Tajani told the legislature in Strasbourg on October 25.

By awarding Sentsov the prize, the European Parliament was expressing "its solidarity with him and his cause," Tajani added.

Tajani called on Russian authorities to release Sentsov "immediately," saying the filmmaker was in poor health after he earlier this month ended a 145-day hunger strike in a prison in northern Russia.

Sentsov, a Crimean native who opposed Russia's 2014 takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula, is serving a 20-year prison term after being convicted of terrorism in a trial that he, human rights groups, and Western governments contend was politically motivated.

He is currently imprisoned in the Far Northern Yamalo-Nenets region of Russia where he started a hunger strike on May 14, demanding that Russia release 64 Ukrainians that he considers political prisoners in Russia.

He ended his hunger strike on October 6, saying he had to do so to avoid being force-fed by the prison authorities.

After the announcement, congratulations for Sentsov began to pour in from Ukraine and elsewhere, while Russia's Foreign Ministry criticized the move as "politicized." ​

On his Facebook page, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the "whole democratic world is fighting together with Ukraine for [Sentsov's] freedom and life."

Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman said the award was "yet another turn of key to unlock the prison capturing Oleh."

Russia had hoped the Sentsov question would disappear after he ended his hunger strike, according to Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.

But now, he tweeted, "Sentsov will be for Russia who Sakharov became for the USSR."

Sentsov's mother, Lyudmila Sentsova, broke into tears on hearing the news her son had been awarded the prestigious prize.

"This is the first time I'm hearing this," she told RFE/RL.

"The only thing I want is for him to be home. There's nothing else I want," Sentsova added.

Veteran Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev said Sentsov was worthy of the award.

"I'm very happy. It's a well-deserved award. He's done a lot to free Crimea. I hope that it can somehow quicken his release," Dzhemilev told RFE/RL.

The European Commission also congratulated Sentsov, with spokeswoman Mina Andreeva saying he "has shown incredible courage and determination and selflessness during his imprisonment and hunger strike."

In a press release, Eduard Kukan, a member of the center-right European People's Party (EPP), called Sentsov "a prisoner of conscience, an honest and innocent man."

EPP member Michael Gahler, the parliament's main spokesperson on Ukraine, described Sentsov as "the voice of around 70 other innocent individuals perishing in inhumane conditions in Russian jails."

The prize ensures that EU lawmakers "are bearing testimony to the fact that they are not forgotten," he added.

"I hope this prize will help Sentsov and all Ukrainians arrested or convicted in Russia on politically motivated grounds to be free again," said Guy Verhofstadt, who heads the parliament's liberal ALDE group.

European Council President Donald Tusk congratulated Sentsov and echoed Verhofstadt's call.

"I renew my call on Moscow to free Sentsov and all other political prisoners following Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea," he tweeted.

While there was no immediate comment from the Kremlin, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova condemned the European Parliament's move.

"An absolutely politicized decision has been made," Zakharova told reporters.

The European Parliament will award the 50,000 euro ($58,000) prize during a ceremony in Strasbourg on December 12.

Sentsov had been selected as one of three finalists in an October 9 vote by members of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs and development committees.

The other short-listed candidates were Moroccan activist Nasser Zefzafi and 11 NGOs that work to save the lives of migrants traveling across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

The prize, named in honor of the Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, was established by the European Parliament in 1988 to honor individuals and organizations who defend human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Sakharov, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, was persecuted by Soviet authorities for his ideas promoting civil liberties and reforms. He spent six years in internal exile in the 1980s for his opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels

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