Russian court jails Olympic environmentalist
12 February 2014, 21:43
Krasnodar - A Russian environmentalist who campaigned against damage caused by Olympic development was sentenced to three years in a penal colony on Wednesday after a court rejected his appeal.
A judge in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar upheld a December verdict against Yevgeny Vitishko, a member of a regional environmental campaign group, finding he violated the terms of an earlier three-year suspended sentence and should serve it in prison. The previous sentence was from a 2012 conviction for damaging property linked to the Krasnodar regional governor.
Vitishko, a 40-year-old geologist, is a member of a group called Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC), which has highlighted the negative environmental impact of the mammoth construction for the Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Since November there have been at least six detentions of EWNC members, some of whom have been jailed for three to 15 days.
"The decision to jail Vitishko was based on pressure from the authorities. The goal is to isolate him from the local and international community due to his activism", his lawyer Alexander Popkov said in court on Wednesday.
Amnesty International on Tuesday appealed to the International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach to address "harassment of environmentalists".
In June 2012, Vitishko and Suren Gazaryan, another prominent local environmental activist, received three-year suspended sentences for causing $4 000 worth of property damage to a fence in a forest, out of what the court called motives of hooliganism.
The group says the fence was illegally erected in a public forest around a residence belonging to the governor of Krasnodar region, Alexander Tkachyov.
The governor of the region that includes Sochi is an ardent supporter of President Vladimir Putin, who has championed the Games, and was closely involved in Sochi construction projects.
In an inspection in late 2011, the group of activists opened up a section of the fence and uncovered logging of protected species of trees. Some also wrote slogans such as "The forest is for everybody" on the corrugated metal fence.
Gazaryan fled Russia in late 2012 and now resides in Estonia. Vitishko meanwhile had to abide by strict rules of his suspended term, with parole officials checking his movements constantly.
Vitishko appeared on Wednesday via a video link from Sochi's neighbouring town Tuapse where he is held under arrest.
Last week he was jailed for 15 days for allegedly swearing at a bus stop, although his lawyer said that no witnesses testified against him.
The Sochi Games, which run until 23 February, are the biggest event to be held in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. They have been in part overshadowed by security, human rights and environmental concerns.