Jailed Ukrainian filmmaker Sentsov wins EU's Sakharov prize for human rights

David W Cerny, Reuters | Demonstrators attend a protest rally demanding the release of Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov in front of the Russian embassy in Prague, Czech Republic, on August 28, 2018.

The European Parliament on Thursday awarded the Sakharov human rights prize to Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, jailed in Russia for opposing its annexation of Crimea and described as a "symbol of the struggle" to free political prisoners.


Sentsov was among three finalists for the prestigious prize, along with a group of 11 charities rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean, and Nasser Zefzafi, head of a Moroccan protest movement who has been in jail since May 2017.

"Through his courage and determination, by putting his life in danger, the filmmaker Oleg 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 said.

"By awarding him the Sakharov Prize, the European Parliament is expressing its solidarity with him and his cause," the Italian politician told the assembly in Strasbourg, France.

Tajani renewed calls for the release of Sentsov, who for the last three years has been serving a 20-year sentence in a Russian penal colony north of the Arctic Circle.

The 42-year-old was convicted of an alleged arson plot in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 and triggered sanctions from the European Union.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko hailed the decision to give the award to Sentsov.

"I am sure that this decision of the European Parliament will bring nearer the release of Oleg Sentsov," he said on Facebook.

Sentsov's cousin Natalya Kaplan, who lives in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, said she hopes the prize will raise his morale when he finally hears about it.

"I hope (this) will help Oleg to further stay strong and of course I am happy for him. He deserved this," Kaplan told AFP in written remarks.

She had no news of his condition but has voiced fear over whether he will survive his ordeal.

'Voice' of innocent prisoners

Sentsov started a hunger strike on May 14 demanding the release of all Ukrainian prisoners in Russia, and his deteriorating health provoked an outcry from the international community.

Sentsov called off the protest after 145 days to avoid being force-fed.

Michael Gahler, a member of the European Parliament who pushed for his nomination, said Sentsov has become the "voice of around 70 other innocent individuals perishing in inhumane conditions" in jails scattered around Russia.

"We nominated Oleg Sentsov for his peaceful protest against Russia's occupation of his native Crimea, and his hunger strike for the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners imprisoned by Russia," Gahler said.

The prize shows "we are bearing testimony to the fact that they are not forgotten", Gahler said.

The Sakharov Prize, set up in 1988 and named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, is awarded every year to individuals or organizations that "have made an important contribution to the fight for human rights or democracy".

Last year's award of the 50,000 euro ($58,000) prize went to the democratic opposition in Venezuela.

Like Sentsov, fellow 2018 nominee Zefzafi is serving a 20-year sentence, along with three others, convicted of "plotting to undermine the security of the state" in Morocco.

His Al-Hirak al-Shaabi movement, based in northern Morocco's mainly Berber Rif region, was sparked by the death of a fisherman who was crushed in a rubbish truck, apparently while trying to retrieve swordfish seized by authorities.

Hirak is calling for jobs, development and an end to corruption in the North African country.

The third nomination was for 11 humanitarian groups that have been carrying out search and rescue operations to save migrant lives across the Mediterranean since 2015.

The most prominent among them are Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Save the Children and SOS Mediterranee.


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