(Moscow) – The Russian authorities should drop their case against two environmental activists who were unfairly prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said today.
Suren Gazaryan and Evgeniy Vitishko were convicted on June 20, 2012, on charges of criminal damage to a construction fence following a trial that raised serious due process concerns. The district court in the city of Tuapse, along the Black Sea coast, found them guilty of “causing significant damage to private property,” to a fence surrounding a dacha allegedly belonging to the governor of the Krasnodar region, Aleksandr Tkachev.
“Bringing criminal charges against Gazaryan and Vitishko was disproportionate to begin with, but to then to ignore basic due process rights makes this whole process an exercise in punishment and retaliation,” said Yulia Gorbunova, a Moscow-based researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This conviction is another sad example of the Russian authorities’ misuse of legal mechanisms to silence critical voices.”
The court sentenced the activists to three-year conditional sentences with a two-year probation period. If they violate the conditions of the sentence, which include a curfew and the requirement to inform the authorities about the changes of the place of residence, they could be sent to serve their sentence in prison.
Gazaryan, a zoologist and a Candidate of Sciences in biology, and Vitishko, a geologist, are members of Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus. Gazaryan is known for his outspoken criticism of the Russian authorities on a number of issues, including the construction of a highway through the Khimki forestnear Moscow and environmental concerns in Sochi connected to the preparationfor the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
On November 13, 2011, Gazaryan, Vitishko, and other activists held a rally in Tuapse, calling for the protection of the Black Sea coast and the nearby forest. As part of the rally, the activists headed into the territory of the state forest fund, which, under Russian law, is open to the public. Inside the forest they discovered a fence surrounding a construction site.
According to protesters, in order to proceed into the forest they had to remove one section of the fence. The activists say that the land surrounded by the fence, on which a dacha is allegedly being built for the governor, belongs to the state forestry fund and that any construction work there is illegal.
While at the fence, some of the activists painted graffiti on it, including: “Alex [Tkachev] is a thief,” “This is our land,” and “This is our forest.’’
Both Gazaryan and Vitishko admit to removing a small section of the fence in order to reach the forest park. Gazaryan and Vitishko told the court they were prepared to pay for the damage. However, during the trial the prosecutor stated that since the removed section of the fence was restored before any damage assessment could be made, only the alleged graffiti was included in the charges against the activists. An assessment commissioned by one of the private owners of the fence determined that the damage caused by the graffiti was costly enough for the prosecutor’s office to justify bringing criminal charges.
“Gazaryan and Vitishko have admitted that they removed a section of the fence and have offered to pay for repairs,” said Gorbunova. “The authorities’ refusal to acknowledge this and their decision to instead pursue criminal charges against them is excessive and appears to be an effort to retaliate against these outspoken activists.”
Vitishko’s lawyer, Marina Dubrovina, called the criminal charges against the activists unprecedented in her experience. “There are thousands of fences and walls in Russian cities covered in graffiti, but this is really a first in my legal practice that I hear of slamming someone with criminal charges for allegedly writing on a fence,” Dubrovina told Human Rights Watch.
The conditional sentence includes a prohibition against “violating public order,” which may be interpreted as amounting to a ban on Gazaryan and Vitishko participating in public protests. The sentence also requires the men to observe a curfew from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. and to notify the authorities if they change their residence. Breaking any of these conditions may result in a court ordering them to serve their sentences in custody.
In an interview shortly after the verdict, Gazaryan told Human Rights Watch that the curfew and other restrictions imposed by the court will make it next to impossible for him to engage in scientific field work, which can require him to be out of his home for days at a time, or to continue his environmental activism.
The three-day trial against the activists was deeply flawed. Before the trial began on June 18, Gazaryan asked the court either to postpone the hearing, because his lawyer was on a business trip until June 20, or to allow him to represent himself in court. The judge denied both requests. Instead, the court appointed a lawyer who had limited familiarity with the case and allowed the lawyer only an hour and a half to prepare to represent Gazaryan.
Dubrovina said that a video used as the main evidence against the two was never shown to the defense or the court. The video allegedly contains footage of the activists writing graffiti on the dacha construction fence on November 13. The court denied Dubrovina’s request to make the video inadmissible as evidence since it had not been shared with the defense or shown in court.
The judge also denied defense requests for additional time to call witnesses, including environmental activists from other Russian cities who took part in the November 13 rally, Dubrovina said. The judge allowed the lawyers only 30 minutes to prepare closing statements and denied the defense’s requests for more time. The court denied all but one of 20 defense motions.
Gazaryan told Human Rights Watch that he and Vitishko plan to appeal the verdict.
“This excessively harsh sentence means that for the next few years Gazaryan and Vitishko will have to tread very carefully in their public environmental activism or risk being sent to prison,” Gorbunova said. “This is a serious blow to Russia’s small but dedicated environmental movement, which needs courageous voices like Gazaryan and Vitishko.”