Early release of Russian ecological activist again blocked by ‘mocking’ prosecutor’s appeal

vitishko prison Yevgeny Vitishko during one of his numerous appellate hearings. (Photo: EWNC)

Another hearing for the release of renowned Russian environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko, scheduled for Thursday, was postponed to December 25 by prosecutors, delaying once more an order granting the ecologist a conditional early release handed down more than three weeks ago.

That the new hearing has been set for a later date by no means guarantees Vitishko will be freed the next time he goes to court, as the new prosecutorial appeals could conceivably bury the process in paperwork.

The continued roadblocks to Vitishko freedom are all the more surprising, as Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights had convinced Putin in October to have the Prosecutor General reexamine Vitishko’s conviction.

putin fedotov Putin (far left), Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin (center) and Chairman of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights Mikhail Fedotov at a 2012 meeting. (Photo: kremlin.ru)

It was also clear in court that Vitishko has stuck to the hunger strike he announced on November 23, those who attended told Bellona.

Vitishko is currently serving a three-year prison colony sentence for spray-painting an environmental message on a fence in a Black Sea national park – something he and witnesses insist he never did. He has been imprisoned since February 14, 2014.

On November 10, he was granted a conditional early release that would have seen him return home from his Tambov Region prison colony south of Moscow on November 21.

On the eve of his release, however, prosecutors filed a motion asking the court that Vitishko serve out the 13 months of his conditional early release in a city four hours by road from his hometown and family.

When the Kirsanov Court, near the Sadovaya Settlement Colony where Vitishko is serving his time, convened Thursday, prosecutor Ilya Korshunov presented a successful motion to delay the hearing on Vitishko’s release to western Christmas, this time saying the issue could not be decided unless the owner of the defaced fence were present in court.

Vitishko’s supporters greeted the decision with anger.

Andrei Rudomakha, coordinator for the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC), where Vitishko worked, said the decision was part of a plan of “slow murder” targeting the environmentalist.

Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director who has watched the Vitishko case closely, pointed to the court’s essential corruptibility.

vitishko-dec3 A visibly frustrated Vitishko packs up after Thursday's punting of his release hearing. (Photo: EWNC)

This case is showing the true face of the Russian court system, that the men with power – and money to grease the system– will get it the way they want it,’’ he said. “I have my fingers crossed that Vitishko will be released in 2015, but I am starting to lose that hope.”

Valentina Shaysilova, part of the legal team appealing for Vitishko’s conditional early release, called Thursday’s decision a “mockery.”

“Formally, the court is right to issue a continuance on the hearing,” said Shaysilova. “But at its heart, this is a mockery of Yevgeny – it’s unclear why the complainant [the owner of the fence] could not notify the court in time.”

The fence’s mysterious owner

This complainant, said Rudomakha, is a construction firm called Kapitel-2.

The firm built the fence around the lavish summer home of Alexander Tkachyov, the former governor of the Black Sea’s Krasnodar Region, and who was instrumental in helping the Kremlin bypass and rewrite a number of environmental laws to ensure Russia could host its showcase 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.

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

But Rudomakha said that over the three years officials have been persecuting Vitishko over what’s known locally as the “fence incident,” Kapitel 2 has never been mentioned.

“Never in the process of appeals to free Vitishko […] has the so-called “complainant” participated, and it has never been a reason to postpone hearings,” Rudomakha told Bellona. “No one has ever raised a question about this.”

Representatives of Kapitel 2 could not be reached by Bellona for comment.

Ongoing grudges for smearing the Olympics

The fence Vitishko is accused of defacing still 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 Sochi Olympic Game, 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.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no