(Moscow) – Police and private security forces forcibly dispersed a group of residents protesting construction at a proposed power plant site in the Hosta district of Sochi on April 29. The security forces injured some protestors while aggressively dragging some of them off of a temporary bridge being built to enable machinery access the site.
Residents of the village of Kudepsta have been protesting the proposed power plant’s construction for nearly a year. They fear noise pollution and emissions from a plant built in their residential neighborhood and nearby tourist destinations will have negative effects on their health and livelihoods. The plant is projected to be the largest natural gas-powered station in the world, and its construction is supposedly part of the government’s preparations for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
“The situation in Kudepsta is clearly growing more tense by the day,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Russian and Olympic authorities should take steps to address the situation and prevent aggressive actions on the part of private security personnel.”
According to residents present at the site interviewed by Human Rights Watch, at approximately 9 a.m. on Monday morning seven private security guards, apparently hired by a company engaged in construction of the power plant, along with heavy machinery arrived at the bank of the Kudepsta river near the bridge construction site. Some Sochi residents were already at the site and many more arrived soon thereafter. The security personnel attempted to stop residents seeking to interfere with the construction from climbing into the river. Some residents nevertheless were able to climb on top of the bridge pieces yet to be assembled. The security forces aggressively pulled people– including elderly people and children– off of the bridge pieces and out of the water.
At approximately 10 a.m., between 60 and 70 local police arrived and formed a cordon also to stop people from entering the river, and helped the private security personnel drag people out of the river, away from the bridge construction.
Sometime later in the morning, an ambulance arrived to treat at least three people who had been injured. At least one person was hospitalized with unknown injuries. Witnesses say several other residents were also injured.
Residents continued to attempt to climb onto the bridge, with the security forces pulling them off until early afternoon. At about 3 p.m., 10 residents left to go to the prosecutor’s office to file complaints.
“The people of Kudepsta are taking desperate measures to have their reasonable and legitimate grievances about having a power plant built in their backyards heard in the face the Russian authorities’ indifference,” Buchanan said. “The International Olympic Committee so far has accepted the Russian authorities’ assurances that they are acting in good faith in Kudepsta, but the Olympic leadership should not sit back while the authorities refuse to address the Kudepsta villagers’ serious concerns.”
Residents allege that construction at the site, including of the temporary access bridge over the Kudepsta river, has been carried out without the required government approvals and permits. In early 2012, workers erected a construction fence and a temporary access bridge and began cutting trees. After the first temporary bridge was damaged in a flood in March 2013, workers have attempted to erect a replacement bridge. Residents allege this work is being carried out without necessary state permits.
For nearly a year, and most recently at a public hearing on April 23, 2013 in Sochi, residents have complained that they also had not been granted access to the power plant’s official project documentation, which under Russian law should be made public. At the hearing the authorities provided no explanation for the failure to make the plans public.
“The residents of Kudepsta have been living for too long without any clear or accurate information about the power plant that will forever alter their community,” Buchanan said. “The authorities have repeatedly emphasized that they need to push through this project as it is essential for the Olympic Games. They should immediately publicize all the official project documentation. Any construction on this scale should be held up to public scrutiny, especially when it is being justified in the name of the Olympics.”
Villagers told Human Rights Watch that they have submitted dozens of petitions and complaints listing environmental and legal concerns to the local and federal authorities as well as to the International Olympic Committee.
In August 2012, following numerous protests at the site, the authorities briefly detained and brought administrative cases against some residents who had protested against the construction. One of the residents later died and the charges against the others were dropped.
Environmental experts and groups have criticized the project, warning of health threats that could result from high levels of pollutant gas and noise.
Russia’s human rights obligations, in particular as a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, require it to undertake a meaningful investigation and assessment to determine the impact on human rights of construction projects that it engages in or authorizes. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly ruled that the right to private and family life includes a right to protection from environmental pollution, which may affect individuals’ well-being and prevent them from using their homes.
In cases such as the construction of a power plant, the court requires that a proper and complete investigation, which takes into account the interests of those impacted by the construction, precedes the project. The study should assess the impact of the project on the individuals’ rights with the aim of finding the best possible solution to minimize the interference with these rights “by trying to find alternative solutions and by generally seeking to achieve their aims in the least onerous way as regards human rights.”
A wave of protests erupted in spring 2012 after preparatory construction work began at the site and have continued periodically since. A group of activists from the Kudepsta community board (in Russian, territorial’noe obshchestvenoe samoupravlenie, or TOS) set up an observation camp and on several occasions blockedthe road leading to the site. They sought to prevent heavy machinery from entering the site to perform work they believed to be unlawful.
The preparatory work began before the results of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) had been presented at a public hearing, a requirement under Russian law, and before the documents were submitted for the environmental review. The hearing on the Kudepsta power plant EIA was held on August 24, 2012, more than two months after work started at the site. Under the national law regulating Olympic construction, no preparatory construction work for an Olympic site can be performed until all required documentation has been submitted for the state review. The final approvals for construction were secured only in March 2013.
During a protest on August 14, 2012, police detained Kudepsta TOS head Anatoly Mahnovsky and TOS member Pavel Chesnokov. Mahnovsky and Chesnokov had stood on the access road to the proposed power plant site with fellow residents who gathered peacefully to obstruct the arrival of heavy machinery. Mahnovsky told Human Rights Watch that by being at the site at the request of local villagers, he was performing his duties as the head of TOS.
Both men told Human Rights Watch that police asked them to sign police reports containing false information about the circumstances of their detention, which they refused to do. Police later released them but charged them with organizing unsanctioned gatherings. The men deny that they organized anything, but simply gathered with others near the construction site. Following their release, the men filed complaints with the prosecutor’s office against their unlawful arrests. There was no investigation into the complaint, but Mahnovsky later died of natural causes and the charges against Chesnokov were dropped in September.