February 3, 2014 Update
On February 3, 2014, a court in the southern Russian city of Tuapse sentenced environmental activist Evgeniy Vitishko to 15 days’ detention for allegedly swearing in a public place, an administrative offense. The authorities denied Vitishko the opportunity to have his own lawyer present at the court hearing. He immediately filed an appeal against the detention but is currently being held in police custody pending the appeal. Vitishko is a member of the leading environmental watchdog group Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC) and has repeatedly criticized negative environmental impacts of the government’s preparations for the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, which open on February 7. Police detained Vitishko at a bus stop after he had just informed his parole officer that he intended to visit Sochi in the near future. Vitishko is required to inform the authorities of any plans to travel outside of Tuapse because he was previously convicted on dubious criminal hooliganism charges. He is currently appealing that conviction, for which he faces a three-year sentence in a prison colony.
“There is no doubt that the Russian authorities locked up Evgeniy Vitishko to silence a respected and vocal critic on the eve of the Olympics opening ceremony,” said Jane Buchanan, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “The International Olympic Committee should call on the Russian authorities to stop their relentless campaign against Vitishko and live up to their commitments as Olympics host to respect free speech.”
Since late December, police have interfered with peaceful one-person pickets, detained and jailed protestors, and called and visited several activists and a lawyer at their homes. Police insisted that these individuals come to police or security service offices for questioning about their activities related to the Olympics. In some cases the authorities have justified their actions by the strict security measures in place ahead of and during the games.
The incidents follow several years of official harassment of critics of preparations for the games, Human Rights Watch said.
“By escalating the campaign to silence Sochi critics, the Russian authorities are showing the lengths that they will go to stifle negative information about the games,” said Jane Buchanan, Europe and Central Asia associate director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to stop harassing activists and others who are voicing legitimate concerns, or risk further tarnishing an Olympics already marred by controversy.”
On December 25, 2013, activists in several Russian cities, including Sochi, undertook one-person pickets in support of Evgenii Vitishko, an environmental activist sentenced on December 20 to three years in a prison colony for alleged parole violations related to dubious criminal hooliganism charges. The original charges stem from graffiti that several environmental activists sprayed on a construction fence outside a dacha allegedly belonging to the Krasnodar Region governor during a November 2011 rally that Vitishko and activist Suren Gazaryan participated in.
According to Alexander Popkov, a lawyer who was with some of the activists after the December 25 protests in Sochi and in contact with other protestors that day, police questioned one protestor at a café after the picket ended. In Krasnodar, authorities confiscated one activist’s poster to examine it for “extremist” content. The poster referred to the fact that Vitishko has two young children and read, “Keeping children from their father? All for the Olympics of thievery?”
On December 29, 2013, police arrested four environmental activists near Dzhubga, a seaside resort village approximately 170 kilometers from Sochi, and sentenced them to three days’ administrative arrest for allegedly resisting police orders. Police stopped the activists as they were attempting to visit the same construction fence Vitishko had been charged with allegedly vandalizing. The activists denied the charges.
At the end of December, authorities came to the homes of 10 activists and journalists in the Kradnodar region to speak to them about their activism. Among them was Natalia Kalinovskaya, an activist who has for many years been outspoken in her criticism of environmental issues and property rights violations associated with construction for the games. On December 22, three criminal police officers came to Kalinovskaya’s parents’ home, where Kalinovskaya was staying. Police entered the home, without a warrant, to find Kalinovskaya.
Police told Kalinovskaya that they wanted to speak to her about “the Olympics in Sochi” and insisted that she come to the police station to be issued a special identity card for people included in a list of so-called “organizers of meetings and civic disturbances.” Police showed her the list but did not explain who created the list or on what basis. Kalinovskaya refused to go to the police station without an official summons. Police left her home only after she told them she was planning to leave Sochi for the period of the Olympic Games.
‘People Under Suspicion for Tendencies Towards Extremist Activities’
On December 25, Sochi police called in for questioning environmental activist Olga Noskovets, saying that they wanted her to fill out a form for an identification card for “people under suspicion for tendencies towards extremist activities” that included detailed personal information. Noskovets’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the police also questioned Noskovets about her plans for activities “during the Olympics” and insisted that she sign a statement that during the Olympics she would not undertake any illegal activities.
In recent years both Kalinovskaya and Noskovets have faced pressure linked to their Olympics-related activism.
Another environmental activist, who asked not to be named out of fear for her safety, told Human Rights Watch about receiving at least 10 calls from a caller identifying himself as from the Federal Security Service (FSB) “image department,” asking her about her environmental work and inviting her to come to the local FSB office “for a conversation.” The calls began in March 2013 and have continued through January 2014. The same caller also asked the activists at one point to not disclose the information about the calls, inquired about meetings the activist had had with foreign journalists, and warned the activist against talking with journalists who are critical of Russia.
“The Russian government has legitimate terrorism and security concerns ahead of the Sochi Olympics and absolutely has an obligation to provide security for the games,” Buchanan said. “But it can’t use security as a pretext to harass and intimidate critics into silence, including during the games.”
On December 25, 2013, police visited the home Alexander Popkov, a lawyer who has represented numerous journalists, activists, and migrant workers in Sochi. Popkov told Human Rights Watch that he was not at home at the time, and so a police official called him on his mobile phone and invited him to the police station to “calmly have a discussion about the Olympics.” Popkov refused to be questioned without an official summons. Police later questioned Popkov’s neighbors about the lawyer’s activities. On January 5, 2014, two police officers stopped Popkov on a central Sochi street, asking to see his identity documents, but without any grounds for doing so.
Sochi’s Potemkin Protest Zone
The Russian authorities have taken other measures to choke free speech ahead of and during the Olympics in Sochi. A recent presidential order severely restricts demonstrations in broad areas across Sochi from January 7, 2014, through the end of the Paralympic Games in March. The authorities have set up a so-called “protest zone” in a small village approximately 15 kilometers from the Olympic Park. Anyone seeking to use the zone must get permission from Russian authorities, including the FSB. Despite the dangers shown by a similar “protest zone” during the Beijing Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) praised the move, claiming that it would allow people in Russia “to express themselves freely.”
“This Potemkin protest zone isn’t convincing anyone – except apparently the IOC – that Russia is living up to its commitments to free speech,” Buchanan said. “This kind of restriction on demonstrations is excessive and cannot in any way be justified by security concerns.”
“The IOC has done a huge disservice to Russian activists by not challenging the Russian authorities’ efforts to silence activists,” Buchanan said. “The Olympic Charter clearly calls for the Olympic movement to promote human dignity, but the games in Sochi are instead taking place in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.”