An attempt by an American environmental campaigner and her colleague to visit Russia’s imprisoned anti-Olympic activist Yevgeny Vitishko ended in scandal as they were turned away by prison camp officials because they were foreigners, one of the activists told Bellona Wednesday.
Kate Watters of Crude Accountability and her colleague Sergei Solyanik of Kazakhstan attempted to visit the Amnesty-named Prisoner of Conscience at the Sadovaya minimum security Prison Colony in Russia’s Tambov Region on May 21.
Both Watters and Andrei Rudomakha, director of the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC) – the group with whom Vitishko has worked – told Bellona by phone and email that the reasons given for Watters’ Solyanik’s rejection were flimsy and improvised.
That Watters and Solyanik were turned away is especially surprising in light of the relatively seamless reception Bellona’s American editor received for Vitishko’s first interview since his incarceration.
Vitishko was jailed in February 2014 for allegedly spray-painting a fence surrounding Krasnodar Regional Governor Alexader Tkachev’s summer home on the Black Sea, which blocks access to a public beach. His supporters insist Vitishko didn’t do it, and lawyers have said the punishment is disproportionate to the perceived offense.
Crude Accountability, which works with activists and citizen groups in the Caspian Sea basin to expose environmental rights abuses related to the oil and gas industry, has been a partner of EWNC since 2007. Vitishko has been instrumental in these efforts, said Watters. The two groups linked arms to oppose oil and gas terminal construction on the Black Sea’s Taman Peninsula.
Watters is no stranger to harassment in Russia. The dual campaign provoked official as well as industry backlash against both groups since its inception, and has led to police harassment and interference, Watters told Bellona in a Wednesday telephone interview following her return to the US.
Vitishko’s rights trampled
Watters said she was outraged that she and Solyanik were turned away.
“I started talking to EWNC about going to see [Vitishko] months ago – he wanted increased international attention on his case,” Waters said. “We came to stand in solidarity with [Vitishko], to let him and the prison administration know he is not forgotten, and to bear witness to his wrongful imprisonment. We were denied visitation and [Vitishko] was denied his right to see visitors.”
EWNC came under increased scrutiny for its revelations of environmental destruction surrounding the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Their research culminated in a damning report on corruption and disregard for Russian ecological law. Vitishko was one of the report’s lead authors.
Vitishko uncharacteristically ‘despondent’
Meanwhile, Rudomakha, who accompanied Watters and Solyanik on their May 21 trip, was able to visit Vitishko. He told Bellona by email that prison life is wearing on Vitishko’s characteristically upbeat demeanor. He wrote that his jailed colleague appeared “despondent” and quoted him as saying “my batteries are dying.”
Vitishko is is a year and three months into his 3-year sentence, and Rudomakha said Vitishko appeared distracted and twice repeated that, “I won’t survive another half year here.”
An appeal for his early release was rejected in April by a local court. A presidential amnesty in honor of Russia’s May 9 Victory Day that could free more than 60,000 prisoners over a six month period was approved by the Duma in April. Whether Vitishko falls into the parameters of the amnesty has sparked hot speculation in Russian media, most of it not hopeful.
Fumbling excuses and petty power plays
Shortly into Watters’ attempt to visit Vitishko it became clear that speaking with him would prove impossible.
Watters said the group arrived at the prison colony at about 10 am on May 21, bearing clothing and groceries. They set about writing detailed descriptions the items they brought while prison administrators checked their passports.
“They must have asked for our passports six times while we were filling out the description of all the things we were bringing Zhenya [Vitishko],” she said.
By about 2:30 pm, in Watter’s accounting, Rudomakha and another ENWC activist, Oleg Desyatov, were allowed to see Vitishko. Meanwhile, she and Solyanik were told by the prison’s deputy director, Nikolai Smykov that their visit had been rejected.
“We waited for hours, and then they pulled me and Sergei [Solyanik] aside and said ‘unfortunately because you are foreigners, there’s a special protocol and you’re not going to be able to get in.’”
Watters said Smykov, who was flanked by two guards, was jittery during the conversation, and cited seemingly arbitrary articles of Russia’s criminal code as the source of his rejection. She said she and Rudomakha surmised the order to turn her away had come from rarer air than Smykov’s office.
In Rudomakha’s opinion, Smykov was probably told to turn away Watters and Solyanik by the Tambov division of the Penitentiary Service. When Bellona contacted a spokesman there by telephone Thursday, he demanded requests for comment be submitted through the regular mail. He refused to give his name.
A source with Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service told Bellona anonymously that there was no legal reason Watters should have been rejected. She said no additional protocols or advanced notice are required for a foreigner to visit a minimu- security facility like the Sadovaya colony.
Back at Smykov’s office, Watters was told she should have applied earlier, and should have contacted the US Embassy and the State Department prior to her arrival for clearance.
“The notion that we would have to check in with our own government to see a Russian prisoner is crazy,” Watters said. “He was just really pulling at straws to put together some description as to why he turned us away.
Watters and Rudomakha eventually demanded a written explanation for the denial – as is promised on the application papers any visitor has to fill out – and that, too, Smykov denied.
“So then the deputy director says to us that ‘I can’t give you the application because that would be a violation of Vitishko’s privacy,” she said.
Officials at the Sadovaya colony refused to connect Bellona to Smykov for comment.
As the day ended, Watters said Smykov’s attitude became more contrite than truculent.
“[…] the deputy director […] by the end of the day was apologizing,” she said. “He was clearly uncomfortable.”
Watters said crude will Russian prison authorites and meeting with the US State Department over the incident, which she charachterized as “A demonstration of the paucity of respect for basic human rights of Russian citizens.”
“Vitishko has the right to visitors – and that should not be left to the whim of some person who decides that today is not a good day for Yevgeny Vitishko to have visitors.”
Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s Executive Director, agreed.
“The refusal of visits to Vithiskko is a clear violation of his rights, and is another grave example of how the Russian authorities are bullying with people that dare to speak up for the environment in Russia,” he said.