Russian eco-prisoner to walk free on conditional release in 10 days

visihko free Vitishko (left) and his lawyer Sergei Loktyov after it was announced Vitishko would receive a conditional early release on November 10. (Photo/EWNC via Twitter)

Yevgeny Vitishko, the imprisoned Russian environmentalist was Tuesday granted a conditional release during an appeal hearing for a mitigated, non-custodial sentence for allegedly spray-painting an ecological message on a fence in 2012, his colleagues and lawyers said.

The fence, which surrounds the summer mansion of former Krasnodar Regional Governor and Sochi Olympic booster Alexander Tkachyov, was erected in a Black Sea national park and blocks access to a public beach.

fence A portion of the fence photographed by EWNC after it was painted in 2011 with the words 'This is our forest.' (Photo: EWNC)

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 colleagues at the Environmental Watch on the Northern Caucasus (EWNC) enraged activists at home and internationally.

Bellona’s Executive Director Nils Bøhmer has long demanded the international sports body be brought to account for its hands-off approach to the abuses that took place during the Sochi Games. He applauded the court’s decision.

“This is indeed very good news, and I look forward to meeting with Vitishko as a free man in the near future,” Bøhmer said.

“He has done the very important job of exposing the environmental faults of the Sochi Olympics, and I urge the IOC to sit down with him as soon as possible in order to learn from the mistakes of Sochi,” he said.

Tuesday’s decision

The decision to mitigate Vitishko’s sentence was made by Judge Sergei Deyev of the Kirsanov Court in the Tambov Region, south of Moscow, where Vitishko has been serving a three-year sentence in the Sadovaya Prison Colony.

Vitishko will be freed after a 10-waiting period during which the prosecution and the defense can file further argumentation – something his lawyer Sergei Loktyov and EWNC indicated was unlikely.

20141107_183631 Sadovaya settlement colony. (Photo: Charles Digges)

Vitishko also comes before the Kirsanov court again on November 16 where the conditions of his early release will be revisited.

He has been imprisoned since February 14, 2014. Before that he and his EWNC colleague Suren Gazaryan had in 2012 been handed suspended sentences for what’s referred to locally as the “fence incident.”

Gazaryan, who later won the Goldman Environmental Prize for his work exposing Olympic corruption was forced to flee Russia for political asylum in Estonia before the two men were granted an appellate hearing to vacate their suspended sentences. Instead of granting the appeal, Vitishko’s sentence was changed to a custodial one by the Krasnodar Regional Court.

This past Monday, another appeal filed by Vitishko’s defense to include him in a May 9 amnesty initiated by President Vladimir Putin that freed some 60,000 non-violent offenders was turned down by the same court.

Suren_gazaryan 1 Suren Gazaryan. (Photo: EWNC)

That notwithstanding, the Tambov Regional court – a higher court than the Kirsanov court – on October 26 overturned Kirsanov’s three denials of Vitishko’s conditional release appeals.

Jubilation on Twitter

Confirmation that Vitishko’s appeal had been granted came midday from the Kirsanov District courtroom via EWNC’s Twitter account.

“By the decision [Judge] Deyev, Vitishko will be sent home on conditional release,” wrote the organization in Russian.

Loktyov confirmed this in an interview with the RIA Novosti Russian newswire.

“The court ruled to substitute the remaining portion of the sentence – that is, it agreed to a lighter form of punishment than an actual prison sentence,” Loktyov told the agency.

Even Vitishko tweeted triumphantly from the courtroom after the verdict and announced his intentions upon his release.

“After I leave the prison colony, I am going to engage in environmental protection as well as human rights and public and political activity,” he said.

What conditions will be imposed on Vitishko’s release

Loktyov initially proposed that Vitishko should be freed by paying a fine or compensation in the amount of the damage done to Tkachyov’s fence.

But Loktyov further said that determining exact damages would be difficult, and a simpler solution would be to grant conditional release. Judge Deyev agreed, according to Vitishko supporters’ Twitter posts from the courtroom.

vitishko in tuapse Yevgeny Vitishko in his hometown of Tuapse. (Photo: EWNC)

According to RIA Novosti, the conditions by which Vitishko will have to abide will likely include monthly check-ins with the parole department, not to vacate his permanent address in the Black Sea coastal town of Tuapse, and not to leave the Krasnodar Region without permission from authorities.

Fence incident apparently to remain on Vitishko’s record

In his single interview with media while in prison, Vitishko maintained to Bellona that he had never spray-painted the fence. Gazaryan, likewise, told Bellona in an interview in Tallinn, Estonia in December 2013 that neither he nor Vitishko were involved with the small act of vandalism.

But a review of the comments and Twitter posts from the courtroom Tuesday didn’t indicate that Vitishko’s record would be cleared of the crime he insists he didn’t commit.

Prosecutors, prison officials – and perhaps Putin – do a 180

Yet, Vitishko got his share of support in the courtroom today from environmental activists, including Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona director Nikolai Rybakov and observers from the European Union.

rybakov ERC Bellona Director Nikolai Rybakov and Vitishkoi embrace after Tuesday's hearing. (Photo: EWNC Twitter)

During the Tuesday hearing the prosecutor and the administration of the prison colony supported the original appeal to grant Vitishko a conditional release, representing a 180 turn-around from their previous positions.

“There are no obstacles to commuting [the prison sentence to] a mitigated punishment in my opinion,” Prosecutor Anatoly Lyutov was quoted as saying by the Rosbalt Russian Newswire.

He was rejoined by prison colony representative Alexander Pluzhnikov, who indicated Vitishko’s behavior record qualified him for conditional release, said the wire service.

Activists and supporters speculate that Putin himself played no small role in Tuesday’s verdict. On October 1, members of the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights lobbied Putin to reexamine Vitishko’s conviction. Putin said he would charge the Prosecutor General to do so, marking the first time Putin had mentioned the case in public.

It remains unclear if Tuesday’s verdict will allow Gazaryan to freely return to Russia, as he was unable to respond to requests for comment before press time.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no