This holiday season, the United States government is profiling the cases of prisoners unjustly held around the world and the families they leave behind. The campaign is sponsored by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and is known as #FreeToBeHome Political Prisoner Campaign.
The stories of these individuals highlight the broader struggle faced by so many families of political prisoners, who have to commemorate countless family occasions with loved ones behind bars.
One such individual is Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov. He was arrested in Crimea in 2014 shortly after Russia's occupation of the peninsula in retaliation for his vocal opposition to the occupation. In 2015 a Russian court convicted him and a fellow activist Alexander Kolchenko of plotting terrorist attacks in Crimea in a trial that Amnesty International described as "redolent of Stalinist-era show trials." Heather McGill, a researcher at Amnesty International went on to say, "This trial was fatally flawed and credible allegations of torture and other ill-treatment have been ignored by the court."
Sentsov was given a 20 year sentence and is incarcerated in a penal colony in the Siberian region of Yakutia, about 3,500 miles from Ukraine's capital Kyiv. He has not seen his two young children or wife since. His co-defendant Kolchenko received a 10 year sentence.
At least 10 Ukrainians are serving long jail sentences in Russia following dubious trials. Others are in captivity in separatist-run eastern Ukraine or in occupied Crimea. In a letter from Sentsov smuggled out of prison in September, he wrote, "There are many of us held in Russia and even more in Donbas. Some have been freed. Others hope and wait."
Sentsov was detained for exercising his universal rights. He represents thousands of other prisoners unjustly detained around the world.
The United States, said Ambassador Power, calls on all governments, including Russia, to release their political prisoners.
"Political prisoners should be free to believe. They should be free to be loved. They should be free to be home."