SOCHI, Russia – Another activists has been jailed in a crushing sweep against environmentalists who have gathered damning evidence on Russia’s Olympic construction and had planned to present it in a report as international media begins to swoop on this Black Sea resort town.
Igor Kharchenko of the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, a group that has been instrumental in shedding a grim light on the environmental damages inflicted on protected lands in the North Caucasus, was late yesterday arrested and jailed for allegedly not cooperating with police.
He was roughed up by cops on the street, hastily rushed through a court proceeding during which he was not allowed to consult a lawyer and given a five-day administrative sentence, making him the second activists from EWNC to be jailed in three days, according to EWNC’s lawyer Alexander Popkov.
“That he was not allowed legal counsel is an absolute violation of Russian law,” said Popkov. “When it comes to activists, no one cares any more.”
It was the second time Kharchenko had been detained by police yesterday. Earlier in the day, he and EWNC activist Olga Soldatova were stopped by police and taken to a precinct on the pretense that Kharchenko had been driving drunk. Both were forced to undergo blood alcohol level tests and turned loose when the results of the test came back negative.
Separately, activists Alexei Mandrigelya, Anna Mikhailova and Tatyana Borisova were stopped near Krasnodar by police who pointed automatic weapons them and verbally abused them, Popkov said. He added that the police said the three were being followed in connection with a crime, but the police would not explain further.
Late Wednesday, Soldatova was hauled in by police for standing and holding a picket sign outside the temporary holding facility where Kharchenko is currently being detained, EWNC’s twitter feed reported. The sign she was holding read: “Shame on Kuban (region) Prostitutes in Judges’ Robes! Free Igor Karchenko!” Both she and Olga Zazulya, who photographed her, were taken to a police precinct where Soldatova told me in an email that she and Zazulya had been warned in strong terms to discontinue their protest before they were released.
Kharchenko’s arrest follows yesterday’s jailing for “petty hooliganism” of Yevgeny Vitishko, who unknown witnesses said was swearing in public. It is rare that one walks down a street in Russia without hearing someone swearing, making the choice of accusations against Vitishko especially exotic.
Vitishko already faces three years in jail for destruction of property for spray-painting on an illegal construction fence constructed in the Sochi National Forest – something he did not do. His current incarceration means he will not be able to attend his own appeal of that sentence, scheduled for February 12.
EWNC activists in Krasndar were meanwhile in a panic Wednesday as they struggled to complete a report on Olympic environmental damages and violations that they had hoped to release earlier this week.
Activist Dmitry Shevhchenko, suspicious of speaking on the telephone, told me via Skype that EWNC’s office was surrounded by police and vehicles from the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor organization to the KGB.
Siege at EWNC’s Krasnodar office
“It’s a total siege,” he told me from his office in Krasnodar, the capitol of the Krasnodar Region where the Sochi Winter Olympics are taking place. “We are barricaded in the office. There are police all over the place out in front– evidently they seem to want to round us all up and throw us in jail immediately.”
My conversation with him was repeatedly interrupted as the Internet connection at the office cut out and we had to repeatedly call one another back so I could get further details on the situation.
According to Shevchenko, the arrests of Kharchenko and Vitishko – who was named a Prisoner of Conscience yesterday by Amnesty International – carry a dual purpose
First police want to prevent the environmentalists from protesting the passage of the Olympic torch through the Krasnodar Region.
Second, they want to stymie or altogether prevent the release of a damning report the group has been compiling on the ecological damages that have accompanied the Olympic build.
“They don’t want this getting out,” said Shevchenko. “Of course, it would already be out if we weren’t dealing with so much police and special services interference.”
Indeed, as thousands of journalists from around the world descend on Sochi today, EWNC had hoped to have a press conference releasing the report. And, despite the $51 billion facelift Sochi has received, journalists arriving have been furiously tweeting photographs of muddy, sludgy, sediment-filled water belching from their hotel room water taps.
Reporter Stacy St. Clair of the Chicago Tribune was told upon checking into her hotel by the receptionist: “do not use (the tap water) on your face because it contains something very dangerous,” she reported on her twitter account.
The tweet has become a meme and Sochi reporters are having a great laugh, and have retweeted it some 15,000 times.
But the water is dangerous because, as EWNC’s Sochi representative Vladimir Kimaev told me, the Mzymta River, Sochi’s main drinking water supply, has been so thoroughly polluted by landslides and construction waste dumped between central Sochi and the ski resort area of Krasnaya Polyana that it is toxic.
The EWNC environmental report, in other words, is something that an estimated crowd-crush of 200,000 Olympic spectators and journalists need to know about.
Kharchenko was rearrested several hours later after the drunk driving test in front of EWNC’s local offices in Krasnodar after a bizarre series of events that Popkov explained to me on by telephone this morning.
After returning to the EWNC office, a group of three men clad in leather jackets smashed up sections of Kharchenko’s car with crow bars and their fists and slashed his tires in an event that was witnessed by EWNC activists via closed circuit cameras and recorded.
The activists called the police and Kharchenko and other activists went out to meet them. The police immediately demanded that Kharchenko produce his documents, but before he could reach into his pockets, they turned him about and slammed him against the wall of the building.
He was then packed away by the police and taken to the precinct, where he still remains.
“The passing of the Olympic torch through the Krasnodar Region en route to Sochi, and the environmental report have made anyone associated with EWNC targets for police,” Popkov said.
“They have opened a war on activists, and quite likely no one will be paying attention to what happens to them either during the Olympics or afterward, when the international media attention will get on planes and fly out and forget about it,” he said.
This is the ninth in a series of stories Bellona is producing on the Sochi Olympics.