Winter Olympics 2014: Environmentalist jailed for three years after Sochi Games protest


Alec Luhn
Wednesday 12 February 2014 21:26
Environmental Watch ecology group activist Yevgeny Vitishko stands in front of the new road between Adler and Krasnaya Polyana in the Black Sea resort of Sochi
Environmental Watch ecology group activist Yevgeny Vitishko stands in front of the new road between Adler and Krasnaya Polyana in the Black Sea resort of Sochi

An activist who protested about environmental damage caused by Sochi Olympic construction has been jailed for three years. The move signals the end of a thaw in political sentencing that started in the? build-up to the Games.

A court in the capital of the Krasnodar territory, where Sochi is located, ruled that Yevgeny Vitishko had violated the parole conditions of a suspended sentence. It upheld a decision made in December to remove the suspension and send him to jail.

Mr Vitishko, a geologist who is a member of Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, was given a three-year suspended sentence in 2012, along with the biologist Suren Gazaryan. The court heard they had spray-painted slogans on a fence during a protest against a mansion that activists said was being built for Alexander Tkachyov, the governor of Krasnodar, in a state forest reserve. Authorities denied that the mansion belonged to Mr Tkachyov.

In December, a judge ruled that Mr Vitishko had broken his parole and should serve time after he travelled to a nearby city without permission and, on another occasion, was one day late registering with the authorities. The activist was arrested this month on charges of swearing in public outside his parole office in Tuapse, a city just north of Sochi . His lawyer, Alexander Popkov, said he had gone there to register a trip to Sochi for the start of the Olympics.

“The authorities want to show their power and make it so I don’t chatter too much, and this is of course connected with the Olympics,” Mr Vitishko told The Independent shortly before the judicial decision in December.

Human rights advocates said the verdict was intended to stifle criticism of the Sochi Winter Olympics, which have been presented as a tour de force for Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin.

“What’s happening in our country and what’s happening in Sochi should never happen,” Mr Vitishko told the court via video-link from Tuapse. “We are not able to tell the truth about what will happen in our region after the Olympic Games.”

Human Rights Watch condemned the sentence. “We think that this is a real failure of justice in this case because it’s obviously politically motivated and not proportional to the supposed crime,” Yulia Gorbunova of HRW told The Independent.

Mr Vitishko had been outspoken in exposing environmental damage caused by Olympic construction, which involved the use of illegal quarries and waste dumps. On the day of the verdict, his group released a report arguing that “for the sake of [Mr Putin’s] ambitions… the unique nature of the Western Caucasus, billions of dollars of budget funds, and the interests of hundreds of thousands of Sochi residents suffering from the Olympics were thrown in the furnace.”

The verdict goes against a trend that began in December when the Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky was pardoned, and amnesty was granted to two members of the band Pussy Riot and the crew of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise. But before these public acts of mercy, pressure on Sochi activists had been increasing, and two other Environmental Watch members were arrested and threatened with charges last autumn. Another activist told The Independent in December that she had been fired after protesting against an Olympic waste dump in Sochi.

Mr Vitishko must begin his jail term but can appeal within a year, though he is unlikely to succeed, Mr Popkov said.

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