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Jailed Critics, Activists in Russia Still Waiting for Freedom

Will There be Good News before World Cup Ends in Two Weeks?

(From L-R) Oleg Sentsov, Oyub Titiev and Yuri Dmitriev are in jail as the FIFA World Cup takes place in Russia. Photos © 2018 Reuters

This week I briefly and inadvertently became a spreader of fake news. Late at night, my heart jumped when I saw a repost of a piece by a reputable media outlet with the headline: “Oleg Sentsov Will Be Transferred to Ukraine.” Sentsov, a Crimean filmmaker, is serving a 20-year prison term following a show trial in a bogus terrorism case. He has been on a hunger strike for 47 days, demanding the release of dozens of Ukrainian nationals jailed in Russia and Crimea on politically motivated charges.

He timed his hunger strike to coincide with the FIFA World Cup. As the tournament unfolds in Russia, many have been marking the days of Sentsov’s hunger strike on social media, registering new concern with each new day.

Like them, I constantly hear that clock ticking. Still, the Kremlin released several prominent political prisoners around the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and the World Cup is not over yet.

I quickly scanned the article: “Moscow and Kyiv negotiating an exchange,” it said. Russia’s ombudsperson was in Kiev at the time. It all seemed right. Elated, I reposted the piece and emailed colleagues. Moments later, I noticed the article’s actual date – April 2016. Those negotiations failed.

I was so hoping that, like Sochi, the World Cup would coincide with the release of people imprisoned for political reasons that my eyes had skimmed reality.

We’re desperate for news of Sentsov’s release. Just like we’re craving the release of Oyub Titiev, the Chechnya director of Russia’s leading rights group, Memorial, who is jailed in Grozny on trumped-up drug possession charges. This, while the ruthless head of Russia’s Chechen Republic was lavishly entertaining the Egyptian national team training there during the World Cup.

Instead, we’ve that learned Titiev’s case will go to trial very soon. And on Wednesday, we found out another Memorial activist, Yuri Dmitriev, is back in jail in north-western Russia. Dmitriev is known for documenting mass graves of people shot during Stalin’s terror. Just a few months ago, Russian civil society had celebrated Dmitriev’s acquittal in a trumped-up child pornography case. Now the authorities arrested him again, based on what could be another fabricated, similar case against him.

The clock is ticking. We have 17 days to go till the World Cup ends. FIFA has announced its concern for human rights defenders, and pressing Russian officials to release human rights activists would set an important precedent that sports bodies will use their leverage for good.   There’s still time for FIFA and key international actors to use their leverage and urge Russia to free these unjustly detained people before the tournament’s last game.

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