Anti-Sochi Environmental Activist Sent to Prison for Spray Painting a Fence

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Activist Yevgeny Vitishko, who worked on a report condemning the harmful environmental effects of Olympic construction in Sochi, was sentenced to three years in prison for the totally legitimate, not-at-all political crime of spray painting a governor's fence in 2012.

That year, Vitishko and fellow activist Suren Gazaryan, both members of the Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC) group, were found guilty of "deliberate destruction of property," allegedly causing $4,000 worth of damage to a fence surrounding Krasnodar Governor Alexander Tkachyov's residence. Vitishko and Gazaryan called the fence illegal because it was constructed in a public forest. The group reportedly found that protected trees were being logged within the fence's confines.

Rubble and garbage near Sochi. AP/Dmitry Lovetsky

The two each received three-year suspended sentences for the damage. Gazaryan, who was later faced with more charges, fled the country and has been living in Estonia, where he was granted political asylum. In December, a court ruled that Vitishko should serve out his prison sentence in jail, and on Wednesday, an appeals court ruled to uphold that decision. 

Vitishko's lawyer, Alexander Popkov, said the decision was not unexpected, adding that it only bolstered suspicions that the activist was being persecuted for policital reasons. The judge cited Vitishko's recent arrest (for swearing at a bus stop while en route to Sochi to help present a critical environmental paper) as one of the reasons for upholding the ruling. It's understandable that Popkov might see this as persecution, as last week's "hooliganism" charge landed him in jail for 15 days, ensuring that he will spend the rest of the Olympics in prison. 

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Human Rights Watch researcher Yulia Gorbunova slammed the prison sentence on Wednesday in a statement on the HRW site: 

The case against Vitishko has been politically motivated from the start... 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.

Six other activists were arrested on the same day that Vitishko was stopped for hooligans, something Gorbunova describes as a deliberate censorship: 

Locking up Vitishko and other Environmental Watch activists on the eve of the torch relay was no coincidence. 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.

ThinkProgress reported back in October that rail companies in Russia have been dumping waste from Olympics construction into illegal landfills just north of Sochi. Maybe that's why some journalists are reporting that seemingly toxic water is pouring out of bathroom faucets in Sochi. According to ThinkProgress

The landfills, just north of Sochi are in an area classified as a water protection zone. The dumping may lead to contamination of the groundwater supply of all of Sochi. This, despite the fact that Russia promised the cleanest games ever, thanks in part to a “Zero Waste” program that pledged not to add to landfills.... The waste is coming from Russian Railways construction of a 30-mile highway and railroad to link the airport and Alpine Olympic venues. This piece of infrastructure has already cost $8.2 billion.

Gazaryan, who spoke with Time from Estonia late last month, confirmed these concerns, and others: 

“The most dangerous and important part of the damage is the biodiversity lost in the area,” says Gazaryan. “Parts of the national park have been completely destroyed. This area was the most diverse in terms of plant and animal life in Russia.” There is also the added danger of increased landslides, mudflows and building collapses as a result of poor construction and hazardous waste dumping practices, says Gazaryan. 

The EWNC report was published today, but we have a feeling Putin, already dealing with fallout from the global anti-anti-LGBT community, criticism for a poor human rights record in general, ridicule for #SochiProblems and Sochi's balmy weather, might not be too quick to respond to the group's findings. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.