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Opinion While everyone watches the World Cup, a political prisoner starves in Russia

Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov gestures inside a defendants' cage as he attends a court hearing in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, in 2015. (Sergey Pivovarov/Reuters)

FOR THE past three weeks, people from all over the world have watched, enthralled, as the biggest names in international soccer have taken to the field for the World Cup in Russia. But amid the moments of athletic brilliance are powerful reminders of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repressive regime. Last week, campaigners staged a quiet protest on Moscow’s popular Nikolskaya Street, erecting a human-size statue of the World Cup trophy adorned with barbed wire in reference to the country’s many political prisoners. Days later, a group of young activists demonstrated outside the St. Petersburg stadium as Sweden took on Switzerland. Both protests called for the release of one prisoner in particular: Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker who has been imprisoned since 2014 and on hunger strike since mid-May.

Mr. Sentsov, an activist and director based in Crimea, was vocally opposed to Russia’s annexation of his homeland. He resisted the occupation and worked with protesters to deliver supplies to Ukrainian soldiers trapped in Crimean bases. Soon after, he was arrested by Russian security forces on flimsy terrorism charges. The authorities claim he set fire to the door of a Russian political party and planned to blow up a statue of Vladimir Lenin. Mr. Sentsov has denied any wrongdoing and has said that he was beaten and tortured in prison; the main witness in the case retracted his testimony after similar reports of coercion. Though human rights groups have called his trial “fatally flawed,” Mr. Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison and transported to a Siberian penal colony more than 3,000 miles from Crimea.

Mr. Sentsov’s case garnered international attention when he embarked on his hunger strike to demand the release of 64 Ukrainian political prisoners held by Russia. (He did not include himself in this list.) The European Parliament passed a resolution calling for his release, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron both reportedly raised the issue in talks with Mr. Putin. The State Department also called for his release, though this was undermined by speculation that President Trump could recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea when he meets Mr. Putin on July 16.

As he nears the 60th day of his hunger strike, Mr. Sentsov has drawn attention to the human cost of Mr. Putin’s thirst for power. His story stands in stark contrast to the glamour and glory of the World Cup. Mr. Putin is likely hoping that the tournament will distract from the myriad injustices committed by his regime. But the democratic world — and particularly the United States — cannot afford to let Mr. Putin’s abuses in Crimea go unchallenged. We can only hope that Mr. Trump remembers this when he travels to Helsinki for his summit with Mr. Putin later this month.

Mr. Putin, meanwhile, would do well to release Mr. Sentsov, perhaps as part of a proposed prisoner exchange involving other Ukrainian political prisoners. If he does not, Mr. Sentsov’s imprisonment could cast a shadow on the legacy of this World Cup long after the fans and festivities have disappeared.

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