WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeated U.S. calls for Russia to “immediately release” jailed Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, who has been on hunger strike for more than 100 days and is reported to be critically ill.
"The secretary noted our concerns about Sentsov's health and urged Russia to immediately release Sentsov and all Ukrainian political prisoners," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a readout of Pompeo’s phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on August 23.
The Russian Foreign Ministry acknowledged that Pompeo raised the issue of Sentsov in the call and that Lavrov “explained the situation,” without providing specifics.
A vocal opponent of Russia's 2014 takeover of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted by a Russian court in 2015 of conspiring to commit terrorist acts.
The 42-year-old has been on a hunger strike at a penal colony in Labytnangi in Russia's northern region of Yamalo-Nenets since May. He is demanding that Russia release 64 Ukrainian citizens that he considers political prisoners.
Russian authorities have refused to free Sentsov, despite reports of a dramatic decline in his health and pressure from Western governments and human rights groups, which have backed the film director's contention that the charges against him were politically motivated.
On August 21, the State Department marked Sentsov’s 100th day on hunger strike by saying it was “deeply concerned” by his detention and renewed calls for his immediate release.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also said that Lavrov in the phone call demanded that the United States end the prosecution and “immediately” release Russian citizen Maria Butina, who is being held on charges of acting as an agent for Moscow.
She has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which include attempting to infiltrate political groups such as the powerful National Rifle Association, to advance Russian interests while reporting back to a high-ranking official in Moscow.
Lavrov also told Pompeo that Washington's "destructive" approach to ties with Moscow is responsible for impeding bilateral cooperation.
Relations between Moscow and Washington have sunk to a post-Cold War low over issues including Russia's seizure of Crimea in March 2014, its role in wars in Syria and eastern Ukraine, and its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.