In the wake of the shocking sentencing of environmental activist Evgenii Vitishko on February 12, I had a feeling that by silencing one of the more prominent scientists to document environmental impacts of the games’ preparations, that maybe, just maybe, the authorities had given themselves a closing ceremony of sorts on the years-long campaign to harass, intimidate, deter, and muzzle critics of Sochi 2014. After all, Vitishko’s sentencing came just days after a stunning wave of detentions of peaceful protestors in three cities in conjunction with demonstrations linked to the Winter Games’ Opening Ceremonies. Surely, with the Olympics fully underway this week and Russia finally basking in its Olympic glow, the authorities had done enough to stifle criticism and activism.
But it was not to be.
The news started rolling in early Monday morning: Sochi authorities detained local activist David Hakim for his one-person picket holding a small poster in support of Vitishko. Far from the Olympic crowds and spotlight, Hakim’s main audience seemed to be police and human rights activists. And yet, even this simple, sincere cry from the heart in support of a brother-in-arms for the protection of a Sochi radically changed by Olympics had to be met with police interference. Even one-person pickets, which typically do not require permission from the authorities, are banned in Sochi under a sweeping decree handed down by President Vladimir Putin in advance of the games. Hakim was quickly swept off to an administrative hearing and handed a sentence of 30 hours compulsory work, a sort of community service, Russian-style.
This was not Hakim’s first go round with local authorities. Police followed and tried to question him after he held a one-person picket in December, also in support of Vitishko.
In an unrelated case, also on Monday, Sochi authorities detained environmental activist Olga Noskovets, claiming she illegally entered one of the security zones set up for the Olympic Games. Noskovets insists that there was no sign on the road demarcating the zone. Authorities held her for about seven hours before releasing her. Like Hakim, Noskovets also probably knew the drill with the authorities – on December 25, 2013, Sochi police had called her in for questioning about possible “extremist” activities.
On February 16 and again on February 17, police briefly detained and released Vladimir Luxuria, a transgender former member of the Italian Parliament, in the Olympic Park. According to media reports, Luxuria was wearing the gay pride movement’s signature rainbow color, holding a banner that said “Gay is OK” in Russian and shouting slogans in support of LGBT-rights. In June 2013 Russia's parliament passed a discriminatory law banning so-called “gay propaganda” to minors.
Just a few days earlier, on February 14 authorities stopped Circassian minority rights activist Asker Sokht as he was driving with his young daughter towards his home in the Republic Adygea, north of Sochi. Police aggressively searched Sokht’s car, then detained him. Following a hasty hearing, a judge sentenced Sokht to seven days detention. Sokht told friends that he believes his detention is in retaliation for his recent criticism of the Olympic opening ceremony.
Earlier this month and in December, the authorities targeted a number of Circassian activists for detention, questioning and in some cases administrative arrest. Many of them have challenged the Russian government’s decision to host the Olympic Games in Sochi, which they consider their ancestral homeland.
The takeaway for me from these latest events? Truly, hope is the last thing to be lost. But if the crackdown on activists ahead of the Sochi games was bad, and the crackdown on activists during the games was no better, I am steeling myself for what lies ahead, as this campaign to silence critics appears to know no reprieve.