Mothers helpless as Russia risks the life of three Ukrainian political prisoners on hunger strike
Three Ukrainian mothers are watching, totally powerless, as their sons, imprisoned illegally in Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea, become dangerously weak on hunger strike. The world knows mainly of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, however the danger to the life of 47-year-old Volodymyr Balukh, after almost 150 days of total or near total hunger strike makes intervention critical. 28-year-old Oleksandr Shumkov has been on hunger strike in solidarity with Sentsov since 24 May, and is very evidently weakened.
Brutality in full view
A day after Sentsov’s cousin Natalya Kaplan and his lawyer Dmitry Dinze warned that the situation was “catastrophically bad”, Russia produced photos of Oleg Sentsov, claiming them to be very recent. Since it has systematically lied about Sentsov’s state of health, his citizenship and the charges against him, it seems much safer to believe Dinze who saw Sentsov very recently
Disinformation can be a weapon, and Kaplan issued a plea on 12 August to all those who, during the previous night, believed a Facebook post suggesting that Sentsov “was saved” and on a plane out of Siberia. The author of the report, a journalist, was seemingly deceived, and believed what she was writing. It is harder to understand those who shared the information as though it were fact, and impossible to fathom how anybody could have phoned Lyudmila Sentsova in the middle of the night with the false news about her son’s release. The 74-year-old is already living in terror that she will not live to see her son, whom Russia sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment on fabricated charges, because of his opposition to its invasion and annexation of Crimea.
Kaplan also stresses that even if, as we hope, there should be genuine news of Sentsov’s release, nothing should be said until he has safely left Russia. Any premature reports could cause harm.
Skeletal and in danger away from the cameras
78-year-old Natalya Balukh saw her son for the first time in eight months on 9 August. She told the Crimean Human Rights Group of the shock of seeing him so desperately thin. He’s just a skeleton, she said, adding that 47-year-old Balukh looks like an old man. She stressed that Volodymyr himself does not say anything about his health so as not to worry her, however his very appearance cannot fail to frighten her. She too fears that she will not live to see her son released.
There are strong grounds for concern. Although, from his mother’s words, it is clear that he is on nearly full hunger strike, he is taking the absolute minimum needed to prevent the occupation authorities using force-feeding. On 19 March, he went on total hunger strike, but was persuaded after 25 days to take what is essentially a bare minimum to slow down the collapse of his organs. He had then resumed the full hunger strike on 23 June in protest at a second fabricated ‘criminal case’, initiated while he was already imprisoned.
During that ‘trial’, he looked dangerously frail, and that was almost two months ago.
Balukh has long complained of chest pain, and is currently held in a police holding centre in Razdolne without even minimal medical care.
Russia has already imprisoned Balukh for the Ukrainian flag he refused to remove from his home, and his unwavering loyalty to Ukraine. It is now risking his life.
The 28-year-old from Kherson is currently on ‘trial’ in Russia, charged in all seriousness with alleged involvement, while in Ukraine, in the Ukrainian Right Sector party and specifically in protests against Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Shumkov has been on hunger strike since 24 May and is looking very thin. He mother, Lyudmila, says that he is feeling very weak and cannot cope when there are three or four hearings in his ‘trial’ in a week. He pleads for a break, although his request is only sometimes heeded.
Oleg Sentsov; Volodymyr Balukh and Oleksandr Shumkov have all been recognized as political prisoners by the authoritative Memorial Human Rights Centre.