The leader of a crusading Russian environmental group that has worked to expose corrupt land grabs in the country’s Black Sea region, was severely beaten and hospitalized last week in what its members say was an orchestrated attack.
Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus came to prominence by revealing the scale of official corruption and willful environmental negligence surrounding Russia’s 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, efforts that forced one of its activists to flee the country and drove another into a prison camp for two years.
The group’s investigations have also shed light on luxury mansions and ski resorts built illegally for Kremlin cronies on protected lands and UNESCO World Heritage sites along the Black Sea coast.
The group’s head, Andrei Rudomakha, was attacked in the southern city of Krasnodar by three masked men who sprayed him with pepper spray, knocked him to the ground and beat and kicked him, he and colleagues who were with him said. He was hospitalized with skull fractures, a broken nose, and a moderate concussion on December 28.
His attack follows the group’s recent exposé of an illegal hunting trip arranged for high ranking local officials.
Activist Aleksandr Savelyev, who was present at the time of the attack, told Radio Free Europe that Rudomakha and other members of his organization had just returned from a trip to the Black Sea coast where they had been documenting the illegal construction of a lavish mansion for high ranking officials.
The attackers had been waiting for the group, and had specifically targeted Rudomakha, stealing the footage the activists had taken on the trip as well as their laptops and cameras. The group publicized the attack on Facebook and Twitter, posting disturbing photos of a roughed up Rudomakha bleeding from his nose.
“Their goal was to collect the material that we filmed,” Savelyev told Radio Free Europe a day after the attack, adding that the masked men could not have known where to wait for Rudomakha without information provided by police or security services.
Savelyev said the mansion they were inspecting is being built without a permit in a coastal forest area near a luxury property that has been linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He said the site is fortified with fences and is patrolled by dogs and security guards.
The regional branch of the Russian Interior Ministry, in a statement sent to Reuters said authorities were investigating the attack.
It’s not the first time the group has found trouble in the course of its dogged environmental detective work. The group was declared a foreign agent by Russia’s Justice Ministry in 2016.
In the seven years leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, the group documented environmental, legislative and commercial plunder in the pristine protected nature reserves surrounding Sochi, and traced them into the country’s highest corridors of power.
Their efforts culminated in a damning report released during the Olympics that detailed crony land grabs and shady business deals around the Games that trampled the local environment, pock-marked the landscape with landfills, deforested protected woods and polluted regional water resources all while enriching Putin and his friends.
In the days before the opening of the Winter Games, one of the group’s members, Yevgeny Vitishko, was imprisoned for nearly two years for exposing a corrupt land deal that granted Krasnodar’s regional governor a mansion on the protected Black Sea coast. Another member, Suren Gazaryan, was forced to flee the country in 2012 after he brought to light illegal building practices surrounded an enormous, muti-billon dollar baroque palace Putin built for himself to entertain his Sochi Olympic guests.
The problems exposed by the group have only gotten worse with time. Last summer, two and a half years after the Games closed, the World Wildlife Fund concluded that the expansion of ski resorts near Sochi owned by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs threatened to contaminate the drinking water for over 100,000 people.
Meanwhile other activists with the organization have been routinely harried by police and subjected to surveillance, official harassment and arbitrary detentions.