February 19, 2014 Update
Environmental activist Evgenii Vitishko completed a 15-day administrative sentence on February 18, 2014, and was scheduled to be released for two days before being sent to a penal colony to serve his three-year sentence on politically motivated criminal charges. However, Vitishko’s whereabouts remain unclear. Police reportedly told a member of a public commission that monitors detention conditions that Vitishko is being held in a remand cell in Krasnodar, but neither his lawyer nor anyone else has been able to visit him. Authorities told Vitishko’s lawyer that the queue of visitors is too long for her to visit today.
“It is deeply troubling that more than 24 hours after the end of Vitishko’s administrative detention, neither his lawyer, family members, nor colleagues have seen him,” said Jane Buchanan, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “The Russian authorities should grant his lawyer immediate access and also ensure that he has the opportunity to visit with his wife and three children before being sent to serve an unjust sentence.”
(Moscow) – An appeals court ruling on February 12, 2014 upholding a decision to enforce a three year custodial sentence for the environmental activist Evgenii Vitishko is yet another injustice in the process against him, Human Rights Watch said today. The appeals court in Krasnodar, 170 kilometers northwest of Sochi, upheld a December decision to force Vitishko to serve a three-year sentence in a penal colony, a sentence based on a protracted and politically motivated, prosecution.
Vitishko is a member of Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC), an independent group that published a report on environmental damage caused by preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, which began Sochi on February 7. For years, the group has led protests and repeatedly spoke out publicly on these issues.
“The case against Vitishko has been politically motivated from the start,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “When the authorities continued to harass him it became clear they were trying to silence and exact retribution against certain persistent critics of the preparations for the Olympics.”
The International Olympic Committee should urge Russia’s authorities to free Vitishko, Human Rights Watch said.
In June 2012, a court in Tuapse, in Krasnodar region, convicted Vitishko, a geologist, and another member of his group, Suren Gazaryan, of causing criminal damage to property and handed them a three-year suspended sentence. The charges stemmed from allegations that they had spray-painted graffiti on a construction fence surrounding land on which a dacha was allegedly being built for the Krasnodar regional governor.
Vitishko and Gazaryan denied the charges. At the time, Human Rights Watch said the trial was deeply flawed and urged the Russian authorities to drop the case.
Six months later, a court imposed new restrictions on Vitishko, claiming he had violated the terms of his suspended sentence. The sentence required Vitishko, among other things, to observe a curfew and to notify the authorities of any change of residence, or risk having the sentence converted to an active term in a penal colony. After local authorities twice in November 2013 accused Vitishko of violating the terms of his conditional sentence, which Vitishko strenuously denied, a court on December 20 sentenced Vitishko to three years in a penal colony.
Vitishko remained at liberty while he awaited appeal, but on February 3, the day before the Olympic torch was to stop in Krasnodar, a court in Tuapse sentenced him to 15 days detention for allegedly swearing in a public place, an administrative offense. The same day, authorities in other parts of Krasnodar region temporarily locked up six other activists from Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus.After he was behind bars, the court set the date for his February 12 appeals hearing. Because he is locked up in Tuapse, Vitishko was not present at is appeal hearing and instead could participate only through video link.
Officials had previously warned the group about its criticisms of the environmental consequences of Olympics-related construction in Sochi. In March 2013, when the group was inspected as part of the Russian government’s nationwide inspection campaign of nongovernmental groups, officials told the group not to publish the report on Sochi-related environmental damage so as “not to harm the country.”
When the group refused, inspectors said they would examine its computers for unlicensed software and look into the group’s email account. The inspectors threatened to fine the organization if anyone tried to hinder them from examining the computers and emails.
“Locking up Vitishko and other Environmental Watch activists on the eve of the torch relay was no coincidence,” Gorbunova said. “It is hard to avoid concluding that local authorities were trying to get this outspoken critic out of the way in the final lead-up to the games and also to silence him as his appeal neared.”