With 50 days to go until the opening fireworks of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, Russia is racing to silence critics. With the news today that Kremlin opponent Mikhail Khordokovsky was released from prison after serving 10 years on politically motivated charges, it couldn’t have been more shocking to learn just a few hours later that a court in the southern city of Tuapse had sentenced environmental activist Evgenii Vitishko to three years in a penal colony.
Khorodokovsky hadn’t even had a chance to reunite with his family, but Russia’s revolving door of trumped-up charges is already spinning—with Vitishko being ushered into the system just as Khordokovsky and other high-profile critics exit, thanks to Russia’s extraordinary week of seemingly Olympic-related amnesties and pardons.
Vitishko, a geologist and member of the Ecological Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC), a leading Russian environmental group, was convicted on June 20, 2012, together with his colleague, Suren Gazaryan, on charges of criminal damage to a construction fence surrounding a dacha allegedly belonging to the Krasnodar region governor. The trial raised serious due process concerns, and Human Rights Watch called for the charges against both men to be dropped. The original sentence handed down was “conditional,” meaning that they had to observe a curfew from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. and to notify the authorities of their change of residence, among other conditions, or risk having the sentence commuted to an actual term in a penal colony.
Vitishko’s conviction today is based on the government’s allegations that Vitishko violated rules of the curfew imposed under the original sentence. He disputes the charges and remains free while he awaits the appeals court ruling, which should happen in 10 days.
Gazaryan has fled Russia, fearing the same fate that has befallen his colleague. A second spurious criminal case opened against him a year ago was a clear enough signal that the authorities were targeting him for his work.
Vitishko, Gazaryan, and other EWNC activists have paid a price for their criticism of environmental damage linked to Russia’s preparations for the Olympic Games. Beyond the spurious criminal charges against Vitishko and Gazaryan, environmental activists and others working in and around Sochi have been subject to various intimidation tactics, including surveillance, arbitrary detentions, groundless searches of their homes and offices, and seizure of their office equipment.
In the final weeks before the Olympic Games, Russia still has a chance to end the repression of Sochi critics that risks casting a shadow over the celebrations.
Watch a video interview with Suren Gazaryan