This week, Russia’s Ministry of Justice removed Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus from the list of “foreign agents” because it no longer receives foreign funding. Andrei Rudomakha, the head of this prominent Russian environmental group, heard the news while in a hospital bed – two weeks earlier he had been severely injured in a vicious attack while investigating suspicions of illegal logging in South Russia.
On December 28, Rudomakha and three other environmental activists – Viktor Chirikov, Vera Kholodnaya, and Aleksandr Savelyev – were in a state forest in Krasnodar region, in southern Russia. They took pictures at a site where a private company, allegedly affiliated with high-ranking government officials, is carrying out logging and construction, which the environmentalists believe is illegal.
Late that evening, the activists drove to Krasnodar. Around 10 p.m., they stopped by a colleague’s home. Savelyev went to open the gate to the house, and the other three were standing by the car when unidentified assailants jumped them.
Three men attacked Rudomakha, spewing pepper spray in his face. They knocked him to the ground, and one of the assailants kicked him. They left Rudomakha unconscious and bleeding, pepper-sprayed Chirikov and Kholodnaya, and punched Chirikov in the stomach. Before fleeing, the assailants rifled through the car, taking cameras, tablets, Rudomakha’s identity documents, and some valuables.
The activists immediately called an ambulance and the police, and paramedics took Rudomakha to the hospital. He was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, multiple facial fractures, brain contusion, as well as a chemical eye burn. Chirikov and Kholodnaya received medical assistance for minor injuries.
Footage from an outdoor surveillance camera recorded the assailants arriving a few hours before the activists. “I’m convinced the attack happened because of our inspection,” said Rudomakha. On December 29, police opened a criminal investigation into robbery, but the assailants have not yet been found.
Last year was Russia’s official Year of Ecology, but conditions for local environmentalists have gone from bad to worse. Since the adoption of the “foreign agents” law in 2012, at least 14 environmental organizations have stopped operating. Many activists suffered harassment. But the attack on Rudomakha and his colleagues stands out for its sheer brutality. The assailants should be held to account. Impunity for this horrid crime cannot but embolden the perpetrators.