Dispatches: A look at human rights in the news today
All Dispatches »

Dispatches: Too High a Price for Olympic Glory
February 14, 2014

Evgeny Vitishko’s troubles with Russia’s authorities began several years ago and continue today. The one constant has been the injustice and the political motivation behind it all as Russia marched towards the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games.

Vitishko, a member of Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus, publicized the environmental damage caused by the construction of stadiums and infrastructure for the Sochi games.

On Wednesday, day six of the Games, I sat in a stifling courtroom where Vitishko was appealing his latest sentence – three years in a penal colony. I waited to hear his fate.

In June of 2012, Vitishko wasconvicted of damaging property – a criminal charge grossly disproportionate to what he was alleged to have done – and given a three-year suspended sentence with probation. But last December, in a move tainted with political motive, a local court converted that sentence to three years of imprisonment, alleging that Vitishko broke parole.

Vitishko’s colleague sat next to me at the hearing. “Evgeny found parole restrictions excruciating,” he told me. “There was a curfew. Police inspectors would check up on him at home. Every time he needed to travel outside of his hometown, he had to ask their permission.”

Vitishko could not even be present to defend himself at the appeal hearing. The week before, local authorities conveniently locked him up for 15 days on apparently trumped up accusations of swearing in public – an administrative offense.

By putting Vitishko behind bars, the authorities silenced him for the duration of the Olympics. They also ensured that he couldn’t fully defend himself at the appeal hearing. As a result Vitishko could participate in the proceedings only through a shoddy video link.  

When the hearing opened, Vitishko’s lawyer presented a petition signed by more than 7,500 people from across Russia vouching for Vitishko and asking the court to set him free. The judge said it was “irrelevant.”

In a monotone voice, the prosecutor argued that Vitishko was involved in hooliganism, not environmental work. Because he was a hooligan, he needed to be “isolated” from society, and the fact that he was currently behind bars on the swearing offense further proved this, the prosecutor argued.  Never mind that authorities locked him up as part of broader, pre-Olympic crack-down on critics.

I could hardly see or hear Vitishko’s last word because the video link was flawed. The judge did not seem to care. We hoped for a miracle. After all, the whole world is watching Russia now with the Games already underway. But the judge confirmed the three-year prison sentence. No miracles, just three years of a man’s life pushed aside.