Russian activists implore Macron over hunger-striking Ukraine director

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Saint Petersburg (AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron has met with Russian rights activists who urged him to pressure Vladimir Putin to free a hunger-striking Ukrainian film director, they said on Friday.

Late Thursday Macron, who is visiting Russia, met with a number of prominent figures including Natalya Solzhenitsyna, widow of Nobel literature laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Alexander Cherkasov of top rights group Memorial after talks with Putin outside Saint Petersburg.

Rights activists urged the French president to lobby Putin to free Oleg Sentsov, who is serving a 20-year sentence in Russia on terrorism charges.

The 41-year-old film director went on hunger strike on May 14 to demand Moscow release all Ukrainian political prisoners it holds as Russia prepares to host the 2018 World Cup next month.

Rights activists fear that Sentsov, who is wasting away in prison in Russia's far north, will soon die.

Opposition journalist and activist Zoya Svetova said she asked Macron to become a mediator between the Kremlin and the Ukrainian government and help free Sentsov.

"I have the impression that Macron is aware of this and will try to do everything in his power to facilitate the settlement of the situation," she said.

"But nothing has been decided," she told AFP, adding time was running out to save the Ukrainian film director.

"I am very afraid that we may not have enough time, that Macron may not have enough time."

Svetova said Macron had already raised Sentsov's fate with Putin and would continue to do so.

Speaking during a news conference after talks with Putin, Macron said he discussed with Putin the fate of Sentsov and Kirill Serebrennikov, a Russian theatre and film director held under house arrest.

He indicated he would quietly lobby Putin behind the scenes, without drawing too much attention to their fate in the public domain.

"I am not in charge of justice in this country," Macron said.

A testy Putin for his part said during the news conference that Sentsov was "detained for preparing terror attacks."

Sentsov, a pro-Ukrainian activist, was detained in Crimea in 2014 after Russia annexed the peninsula and was accused of plotting a terrorist conspiracy. He has denied the changes.

The rights activists and Macron also discussed the arrest of Oyub Titiev, head of Memorial in Chechnya, and other attacks on activists in the North Caucasus, said Cherkasov.

"The state which crudely violates human rights on a massive scale will sooner or later become a threat to the world and international security," he wrote on Facebook.