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FIFA 2018 Kicks Off, While Dozens Remain Behind Bars

European Parliament Calls On Russia to Free Oleg Sentsov and Oyub Titiev

As players score the first goals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, European lawmakers are not forgetting the disturbing human rights realities in Russia.

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

Today in Strasbourg, over 2000 km from Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, they sent another call to the authorities to free Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, human rights defender Ouyb Titiev and dozens of others who are unjustly behind bars.

Their message to Russia’s leadership is clear. As the country celebrates and garners the world’s attention, unjustified restrictions on civil rights and freedoms and the continued detention of critics seriously tarnishes the party.

Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison on bogus terrorism charges after a show trial.  He is one of many Ukrainians held in Russia and in Crimea on politically motivated charges. Sentsov has been on hunger strike since May 14 in a prison beyond the Arctic Circle, almost 3,600 kilometers from Moscow.

Oyub Titiev is the Chechnya director for Russia’s leading human rights organization, Memorial. He has been jailed since January, pending trial on trumped-up drug possession charges. His arrest was the culmination of a series of arson attacks and other intimidations against Titiev’s colleagues aimed at kicking the organization out of Chechnya.

Like them, many others will miss the world cup celebrations – not by choice, but because they are arbitrarily being kept in jail, in violation of their human rights. They include Jehovah’s Witnesses, human rights defenders, environmental activists, and dozens of others, charged under overly broad and vague “extremism” laws, used to silence those who criticize Russia’s actions in Ukraine or its intervention in Syria.

Russia is hosting the FIFA World Cup while its government is more repressive than it has been since the end of the Soviet era. But today’s European Parliament resolution is a call on the Kremlin to still do the right thing and release Sentsov, Titiev and the others now. That’s the least the Russian authorities can do to show a better face, at home and abroad.

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