By Margaryta Chornokondratenko and Pavel Polityuk
KIEV (Reuters) – A Ukrainian filmmaker on the verge of starving himself to death in Russian jail will not end his hunger strike because it is “his only way to fight”, a cousin who was one of the last people to visit him told Reuters.
Oleg Sentsov, a native of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, was jailed after Russia seized and annexed it in 2014, and has become a symbol of defiance in Ukraine.
Russian authorities sentenced him to 20 years for plotting terrorist attacks, charges he says were fabricated because he spoke out against Moscow’s seizure of his homeland. His cause has been taken up by Western governments and by celebrities such as authors Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood.
The filmmaker has been on hunger strike since May, and his health has sharply deteriorated in recent weeks. The family revealed last month that he had written to tell them “the end is near”.
His cousin Natalya Kaplan, who last visited him two months ago in a Russian penal colony north of the Arctic circle when he had already gone two months without eating, sighs as she describes the condition she saw him in.
“It was difficult for him to sit down, it was difficult to communicate, but in terms of his character Oleg remained the same. He did not break down at all,” Kaplan said.
Starving himself is “his gesture of despair, to do at least something,” she said. “It’s probably his only way to fight in the circumstances where he is, and he is using it.”
To avoid being force fed, Sentsov has agreed to be given warm water and be drip-fed vitamins and glucose. The family has not given up hope for his release, though diplomatic efforts have come to nothing.
Kaplan and her cousin mostly swap news through letters, which he always signs “Hugs and kisses. Oleg”. She must pay a symbolic fee of 50 roubles ($0.73) to send him a letter via the prison officials.
She mainly writes to him with news of how his teenage daughter Alina and son Vlad are holding up, and about the public fallout from his imprisonment. In response, Sentsov in August told her that “‘the end is near’, and he’s not referring to when he will be freed.”
Back in Kiev, Kaplan regularly joins rallies outside the Russian embassy to keep Sentsov’s cause in the public eye.
That way, she says, if her cousin does die, it will make life more difficult for President Vladimir Putin and “will raise an even bigger wave” of protests.
“Oleg is fighting and we are not allowed to give up,” Kaplan said.
(Editing by Matthias Williams)