The environmental activists camped out in the Khimki Forest near Moscow have become a national symbol of resistance to corrupt authority. For the last four years, they have been trying to prevent a highway being built straight through the last old-growth oak forest in the Moscow region. The group has attracted some of Russia's best-known cultural figures to the cause. Meanwhile, a new term has been coined in Russian, to defend something "like the Khimki Forest." It means to stand your ground until the very end.

© 2011 Platon for Human Rights Watch

With the Winter Olympics opening ceremony just two days away, the torch relay has arrived in Krasnodar, the region where Sochi is located. The day before, in highly questionable Olympic spirit, local authorities conducted a special sweep targeting so-called “undesirables.” Police in different parts of the region detained seven activists with Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus, a leading group working on a report about the environmental impact of Olympic construction. A court handed one of them, Evgeny Vitishko, a prominent critic of the Olympics, 15 days in detention for allegedly “swearing in public.”

Locking Vitishko up for two weeks isn’t only going to keep him from publicly voicing concerns about Olympic preparations during the games themselves – it’s also going to keep him from fully defending himself on much more serious charges and a potential three-year imprisonment. 

Anyone who has followed the back stories of these Olympic Games probably knows that Vitishko was convicted on dubious criminal hooliganism charges and got a three-year conditional sentence. In December 2013 – ironically, just several hours after the much acclaimed release of Russia’s then top political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky – a local court upped that sentence to three years in a Russian penal colony due to Vitishko’s alleged failure to respect conditions of his parole.

Vitishko appealed that decision. Less than 24 hours after his arrest yesterday, the authorities decided to hold the appeal hearing for the penal colony sentence on February 12.

How convenient. Vitishko will be behind bars – not in the court room. The authorities promise to arrange a video conference, but it makes the trial less attractive for the press. Of course it will also be much easier to transfer him from administrative detention straight to the penal colony. At least that’s what his colleagues think is going to happen on February 12, with the Olympic Games in full swing a little more than 100 kilometers away.

Compared to Vitishko, the other six activists got off lightly. Police falsely accused one of drunk driving, and claimed all six fit “descriptions of alleged criminal suspects.” All were held for several hours and questioned. None were charged and all six are now free. But it is absolutely clear that the detention was aimed to show that if they persist in their activism they could be locked up like Vitishko.    

Today’s torch relay festivities in Krasnodar were not “marred” by environmentalist protests actions. The activists had apparent law enforcement officials tailing them the whole day. In late afternoon, one of them discovered that someone broke the windows and slashed the tires of his car. He called the police – but instead of listening to him, the officers roughly pushed him into their vehicle and drove him to the station under protest.

With the threat of severe retaliation looming, local activists are hardly likely to organize any public actions in Sochi during the games. But one thing is clear: Vitishko’s imprisonment on trumped-up charges, and his colleagues’ arbitrary detentions and vicious harassment, are more damaging to Russia’s “Olympic host” reputation than any criticism they could have voiced.