In a major legal upset, a 10-day-old court decision that would have freed Yevgeny Vitishko – Russia’s most prominent environmental prisoner – on Saturday morning has been challenged at the last minute by prosecutors, postponing his release until at least December 3, Bellona has learned.
On November 10, the Kirsanov Court in Russia’s Tambov Region granted Vitishko’s appeal for conditional release from his custodial sentence at the local Sadovaya Prison Colony, where he’s served a year and nine months on a three-year sentence for spray painting an environmental message on a fence.
Vitishko’s supporters credited his conditional release to an early October appeal to President Vladimir Putin by the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights. Putin publicly promised to have the Prosecutor General review the case.
The Kirsanov judge, Sergei Deyev, agreed to grant Vitishko a lighter form of punishment than an actual prison sentence, and set him a conditional early release date of November 21.
The conditions include monthly visits by Vitishko to the probation department for the remaining year and three months of his prison sentence.
The prosecutor and defense were given until November 20 to file any further appeals by Judge Deyev – something neither side at the time indicated they had any intention of doing.
However the prosecutor late Thursday filed an 11th hour appeal to keep Vitishko in jail until it can be decided precisely where he will live out his conditional sentence upon his release.
According to the appeal, the prosecutor would restrict Vitishko’s movements to the small Black Sea community of Slavyanska-na-Kubani in the Krasnodar Region, Andrei Rudomakha, Vitishko’s colleague at the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC), told Bellona by email.
The issue won’t be decided until yet another appeal for Vitishko’s conditional early release is heard before the Kirsanov court on December 3, said Rudomakha.
Rudomakha had yesterday sent out a press release indicating that Vitishko would go directly from the Sadovaya Colony to a national human rights meeting in Moscow where he would have held a press conference.
Numerous other supporters of Vitishko slung blame at the press release for the last-minute appeal from the prosecutor.
“The Russian legal system has thrown us another curve ball,” wrote Rudomakha, adding Vitishko had phoned from the prison colony to say he’d been shown the appeal from the prosecutors’ office to delay his release.
“The prosecutor is requesting to ‘clarify’ the decision as to which probation office Vitishko must register at,” wrote Rudomakha. “The sense of this twist is that the decision to grant a lighter form of punishment has still not entered into legal force and [Vitishko] is still in the prison colony – this was all done at the last possible moment.”
Rudomakha further conceded that the prosecutors’ actions may have been prompted by the release he issued yesterday on Vitishko’s behalf.
“It’s as if they are telling [Vitishko] to ‘sit-down and shut up,’” wrote Rudomakha. “The next act of this drama will be the conditional release appeal on December 3.”
Other of Vitishko’s supporters, however, thought blaming the press release was senseless. Vitishko himself presented the idea of holding a press conference nearly immediately after his conditional release was granted, and that his telephone calls to his EWNC colleagues on the subject had gone unmonitored is impossible.
The fence that Vitishko was jailed for defacing still surrounds the summer mansion of former Krasnodar Regional Governor and Sochi Olympic booster Alexander Tkachyov.
The fence stands in a Black Sea national park and blocks access to a public beach.
Vitishko was snagged in the gears of the giant Kremlin-driven machine to host the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, which weighed in at $51 billion dollars, making them the most expensive in history.
His ongoing revelations of trampled environmental laws and corruption surrounding Olympic preparations made him enemies in high places, and his imprisonment for a graffiti incident transformed him into an official scapegoat and an activist martyr. Amnesty International named him a Prisoner of Conscience.
The failure of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to address the ecological and human rights issues raised by Vitishko and his EWNC colleagues enraged activists at home and internationally.
Bellona’s Executive Director Nils Bøhmer said the last-minute prosecutors’ appeal was, “Just another example of power abuse by Russian authorities towards the NGO-community.”
“As an NGO you are outlaw in Russian today,” said Bøhmer “And Vitishko has apparently lost all his civil rights just because he told the truth about Sochi Olympic games.”