Russian environmentalist, critic of Sochi Olympics, sentenced to penal colony

Stefan Krasowski, Flickr Creative Commons

WASHINGTON, February 14, 2014 — A Russian appeals court in Krasnodar sentenced a leading environmental critic of the Sochi Olympics to three years in a penal colony Wednesday. Now the IOC and the E.U. want to know why.

Yevgeny Vitishko, the leader of Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus and coauthor of a report describing the environmental damage caused by preparations for the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, was sentenced by a court in Tuapse, Krasnodar, 105 miles northwest of Sochi.

“The case against Vitishko has been politically motivated from the start,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch in a press release Wednesday. “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.”

In response to calls by several organizations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the IOC and European Union Thursday asked Russian authorities to explain the reasons for Vitishko’s three-year sentence.

“We have asked Sochi for further clarification,” said IOC spokesman Mark Adams to the Associate Press Thursday.

A statement by the Delegation of the European Union to Russia expressed concern with Vitishko’s incarceration.

“This sentence appears disproportionate and seems aimed at preventing Mr. Vitishko from presenting his report on the environmental impact of the Olympic Games,” said the statement. “We reiterate the priority we attach to Russia respecting its international human rights commitments on freedom of assembly, expression and association, before, during and after the Sochi games.”

According to Human Rights Watch, Vitishko was initially convicted by a court in Tuapse, in the Krasnodar region, in June 2012 of charges of spray-painting graffiti on a construction fence. Even though they denied that charges, Vitishko and another member of his group, Suren Gazaryan, were given a suspended sentence of three years in a trial that Human Rights Watch called “deeply flawed.”

In December of 2012 a court claiming that Vitishko had violated the terms of his sentence imposed restrictions similar to parole in the U.S., requiring that Vitishko obey a curfew and notify authorities when changing residence. He was then sentenced in December of 2013 to three years in a penal colony on allegations of parole violations. Wednesday’s decision affirmed the December sentence by denying Vitishko’s appeal.

Vitishko and his group planned to present a paper on the environmental impact of Winter Games in Sochi during the event, but were unable to find a venue. Days before the Games began on February 7, Vitishko, who had remained at liberty pending his appeal, was arrested for allegedly cursing in public. He was jailed for 15 days.

“Locking up Vitishko and other Environmental Watch activists on the eve of the torch relay was no coincidence,” Gorbunova from Human Rights Watch said. “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.”

A response to the E.U. and IOC from Sochi authorities is expected within the next few days. Vitishko remains in custody and Gazaryan has fled Russia.

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