Russia is proudly about to welcome hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors. In three weeks, fans, journalists and officials will arrive for the FIFA World Cup 2018, one of the most widely watched sporting events in the world. After months of polishing, Moscow, my city, literally sparkles. Street cafes are decorated with artificial grass and welcoming signs, and football paraphernalia is everywhere you look.

Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov gestures from a defendants' box as he attends a court hearing in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, July 21, 2015. 

© 2018 Reuters

But walking through Moscow, I have trouble connecting with the message of sport’s unifying power. A different message plays constantly on my mind: the words spoken ten days ago in a Siberian prison by a Ukrainian filmmaker from Crimea, Oleg Sentsov to his lawyer. Sentsov is serving a 20-year prison term on bogus terrorism charges, following a political show-trial.  On May 14 he went on hunger strike to demand the release of 64 Ukrainians held in Russia and in Crimea on politically motivated charges.  He told his lawyer that if he died during the World Cup, it would help bring attention to their plight. Those who know Oleg well say that he will not back down.

This is the second time in four years that Russia is basking in the global spotlight of a mega sporting event. In 2014, it hosted the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Just weeks before the Games, the Kremlin suddenly and unexpectedly released some of its most high-profile prisoners: the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, several Greenpeace activists, and two members of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot.  The ugly shadow these cases had cast was lifted.

Can the same breakthrough happen for Sentsov? Much has changed since Sochi. Just after Sochi, Russian forces occupied Crimea and started backing the separatists’ war in eastern Ukraine, prompting a new wave of Russian “patriotism” that is growing apace with Russia’s international isolation. Sentsov, a sharp critic of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, was arrested three months after the Sochi Olympics, and Russia increasingly ignores criticism of its deteriorating human rights record. 

Does the Kremlin care enough about international pressure and the shadow cast by Sentsov’s case to free him? Stranger things have happened, and the outrage over his imprisonment has been mounting inside and outside Russia. For the sake of Oleg Sentsov and others jailed for dissent through political manipulation of justice, we can only hope that Russia still cares about its international image enough to realize that the only right thing to do is to release them immediately.