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Protesters outside the Russian Embassy in Kyiv hold banners calling for Moscow to release Oleh Sentsov.

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.

With reporting by AFP and dpa
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (file photo)

Iranian authorities have granted British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe three days of temporary release from prison, her husband says.

Richard Ratcliffe said his wife left Tehran’s Evin prison on the morning of August 23 and was reunited with her family in the town of Damavand, northeast of the capital.

In a statement issued by the Free Nazanin campaign, he said Zaghari-Ratcliffe "wasn't expecting it at all" and that it was "awesome" for her 4-year-old daughter Gabriella to "have mummy home."

Richard Ratcliffe also said his wife’s lawyer was hopeful the period of release could be extended.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the charitable Thomson Reuters Foundation, is serving a five-year jail sentence after being convicted of plotting against the government, a charge denied by her family and the foundation.

Her employer and the British government say she was in Iran visiting relatives when she was arrested at Tehran airport in April 2016 while traveling home with her daughter.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation’s chief executive, Monique Villa, said Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s temporary release was a positive sign and she expressed hope that it will become permanent.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt also welcomed the "really good news" but said the release should be permanent.

“Being in prison AT ALL is gross injustice and she must be PERMANENTLY released for which every effort will continue,” he tweeted.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family has previously criticized the British government for not negotiating her release.

The British branch of the human rights group Amnesty International also celebrated the "amazing news" in a tweet.

“But the bogus charges still stand against her,” it added. “We must keep up the pressure on Iran by demanding her freedom.”

In May, the head of Tehran's hard-line Revolutionary Court, Musa Ghazanfarabadi, said Zaghari-Ratcliffe is to face a second trial on new security charges, without providing more details.

Earlier, Richard Ratcliffe said his wife had learned of the new allegation of "spreading propaganda against the regime" at a hearing before a judge at the court.

He said the judge told her to expect that "there will likely be another conviction and sentence" against her.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation said that it totally rejects "the renewed accusations that Nazanin is guilty of spreading propaganda."

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has reportedly arrested at least 30 dual nationals since 2015, mostly on spying charges.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and the BBC

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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