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article imageUkraine hunger striker ends protest 'to avoid force-feeding'

By Anna SMOLCHENKO (AFP)     Oct 5, 2018 in World

Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov, who has refused food for 145 days in a Russian jail, said on Friday he was halting his high-profile protest to avoid being force-fed.

Russia's most famous prisoner wants Moscow to release all Ukrainian prisoners but President Vladimir Putin has refused to fulfil his demands or free the 42-year-old himself despite a star-studded global campaign to secure his release.

"I am forced to halt my hunger strike from tomorrow, that is 6/10/18," Sentsov said in a hand-written statement, a copy of which was released to the media.

He said Russian authorities had planned to start force-feeding him "due to my critical condition and the onset of pathological changes to my internal organs."

"My opinion is not being taken into account," he added.

Many activists and Soviet-era dissidents have compared force-feeding in Russian prisons to a form of torture with unpredictable consequences.

Sentsov said he had fasted for 145 days and lost 20 kilogrammes (44 pounds).

He apologised for failing to win the release of Ukrainian prisoners.

"I am grateful to everyone who supported me and I ask those who I let down to forgive me," he wrote.

Earlier on Friday, the Russian prison service said Sentsov had started eating food.

- 'Life goes on' -

Deputy head of the prison service, Valery Maksimenko, said Sentsov was currently in a prison hospital but would be transferred back to his barracks once he recovers.

"He is young, maybe he will become a famous director," Maksimenko told Dozhd television channel. "Let him live," he said, adding the prisoner had until now eaten "pastes from tubes -- like a cosmonaut".

Maksimenko said he was grateful to doctors and lawyers who persuaded Sentsov that "he needs to live, that life goes on".

The film-maker is best known for his film "Gamer", which screened to critical acclaim at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2012.

Moscow has refused to free Ukrainian prisoners or Sentsov himself, saying he must ask Putin for a pardon.

The Ukrainian director has refused to do so.

Sentsov began his hunger strike on May 14. He had been sustained with a glucose drip, some nutritional supplements and water.

Sentsov is serving a 20-year sentence in a prison in the Russian Arctic after being convicted on terrorism charges over an alleged arson plot in Crimea.

A vocal Kremlin critic, Sentsov was detained in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov's hunger strike drew support from many celebrities
Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov's hunger strike drew support from many celebrities
Michal CIZEK, AFP

Supporters say Russia wanted to make an example of him with the stiff sentence. The film-maker has denied the charges.

- Fragile state -

Ukrainian ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova, a government official in charge of human rights, demanded immediate access to the film-maker, saying that ending fasting was "more complicated and scary" that the hunger strike itself.

Russian rights activist Zoya Svetova, who visited Sentsov in prison, told AFP such a long hunger strike could cause fatal heart and other problems.

She noted that prominent Soviet-era dissident Anatoly Marchenko died in a prison hospital in 1986, days after calling off his 117-day fast.

Sentsov's cousin Natalya Kaplan wrote on Facebook that she feared he might not survive due to kidney, liver and other health problems he has suffered due to such a prolonged period without food.

"No one can say now whether Oleg will survive. He hasn't got much of his health left," she said.

"Oleg chose to make an attempt to live. I hope he will pull through."

Supporters have waged a global campaign, urging the Kremlin to release Sentsov and staging protests in dozens of cities in Europe, the United States and the Middle East.

Scores of celebrities have taken part, including bestselling US author Stephen King and Hollywood actor Johnny Depp. French President Emmanuel Macron has raised Sentsov's case with Putin.

Supporters in Ukraine and Russia have called him a hero and have long urged him to start eating again, saying they needed him alive.

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