U.K. Government Supports Campaign to Free Ukrainian Filmmaker (EXCLUSIVE)

LONDON — A leading member of the newly elected Conservative Party government in the U.K. has thrown his support behind a campaign to free a Ukrainian film director held in a Russian jail as campaigners redoubled efforts to secure his release.

U.K. secretary of state for culture John Whittingdale has sent a message pledging to push for the freeing of Oleg Sentsov, who has been imprisoned in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo jail for over a year on what he claims are trumped up terrorism charges. Whittingdale’s message is one of his first public statements since he was elevated to culture secretary in Prime Minister David Cameron’s post-election cabinet reshuffle.

Whittingdale said: “Freedom of media and artistic expression are vital elements of an open, democratic society. I remain deeply concerned by the continuing detention without trial of filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who has been imprisoned in Russia for over a year, and is reported to have been subjected to torture whilst being held.

“The British government has already raised his case with the Russian authorities, and we continue to call on the Russian government to afford him his proper legal rights.”

Whittingdale, as a member of the Culture Select Committee, had previously intervened on behalf of Sentsov, asking questions in the House of Commons last October.

John Whittingdale’s intervention comes exactly at the right time as we run into the countdown to Oleg’s trial,” said Mike Downey, a British producer and European Film Academy deputy chairman. “Hopefully the pressure at this level can have some influence on the powers that be in Russia to allow this clearly innocent man to be released.”

Downey’s summary of the Sentsov case appeared exclusively in Variety back in February.

Sentsov also received the backing of Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, which dedicating its opening event to the prisoner. A benefit event in support of Sentsov was held at the Frontline Club in London this weekend, featuring European Film Academy chairman Agnieszka Holland and Young Vic director David Lan.

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