Early release for Olympic eco-prisoner Vitishko rejected again

20141107_151949 Barbed wire and fences at the Sadovaya Prison Colony. (Photo: Charles Digges)

A hearing highly anticipated to lead to Sochi Olympic environmental prisoner Yevgeny Vitishko’s early release ended in disappointment today based on his refusal to undergo counseling by his prison colony’s psychiatrist, according to his colleagues.

The court also said Vitishko had yet to fulfill the conditions of certain disciplinary reprimands, although guards testified all reprimands had been satisfactorily completed.

After the hearing, which was held on the grounds of the prison colony, his lawyers vowed to appeal the decision to the regional court in the nearby village of Kirsanov.

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

Vitishko is currently serving a 3-year sentence in the Sadovaya settlement colony in Russia’s Tambov region for supposedly spray-painting an environmental message on a construction fence in a public nature preserve on the Black Sea. He’s currently scheduled for release in February 2016.

Along with Vitishko’s EWNC colleagues, today’s hearing was attended by Sergei Badamashin, a member of the Presidential Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights. Reporters from Russia’s Free News publication and the country’s fiercely independent Novaya Gazeta were also present.

The Olympic sentence

Vitishko, with his colleagues at the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC), spent years presenting evidence of environmental devastation and corruption in the lead up to President Vladimir Putin’s prize $51 billion Sochi Winter Olympic Games in 2014.

Their investigations – carried out under conditions of constant surveillance, police harassment, and trumped up arrests – culminated in a damning report released during the Olympics. Vitishko was one of the report’s principle authors.

Today’s hearing was a review of an appeal for Vitishko’s early release originally filed on April 15 by his lawyer Sergei Loktyev.

vitishko hearing Yevgeny Vitishko at another hearing where a petition for his early release was again rejected. (Photo: Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus)

That petition was rejected, but was taken up again on appeal by a different judge on July 10, infusing Vitishko’s supporters with the highest level of hope yet that he might be released from serving his full spray-painting sentence, which other independent lawyers have told Bellona is grossly disproportionate to the supposed crime.

Refusal of psychological counseling dash hopes

Those hopes were torpedoed, however, when a prison official who remained unnamed in EWNC’s email correspondence with Bellona told the court Vitishko declined corrective psychological counseling.

The official, according to EWNC, said all prisoners in Russia undergo an initial psychiatric examination, after which the prisoner can agree to so-called psychological correction – or refuse.

According to the prison official, who was identified as female by EWNC, Vitishko refused in writing to participate in the prison camp’s psychological correction programs, but the prison was unable to produce the document.

Vitishko, who was allowed to pose his own questions during the hearing, asked the prison official if she considered that he need psychological correction and she responded no, according to EWNC members who were present at the hearing.

Guards say Vitishko is ready for release

Alexander Luzhin, chief of the colony’s guard unit, was also cross examined, and told the court that Vitishko had not received any disciplinary reprimands for 10 months, and that the period of the reprimands had expired.

Luzhin said Vitishko was “well on the way to rehabilitation,” according to EWNC representatives, though said he “couldn’t characterize [Vitishko] positively.

He added however that if Vitishko were freed, he didn’t think he posed any danger to society.

The Tambov division of the Public Monitoring Committee, a prisoners’ rights organization associated with the Presidential Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights, agreed and submitted an affidavit to the court indicating Vitishko posed no danger should he be released.

Vitishko also furnished proof that he was donating his ecologist’s salary while serving his sentence to an orphanage. The defense also filed a petition from numerous organizations pleading for Vitishko’s release.

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

Yury Burchevsky, the judge overseeing the case further noted that other petitions for Vitishko’s freedom had been filed by Duma Deputy Dmitry Gudkov.

Prosecution alleges disciplinary problems

The regional prosecutor on the case, who identified himself to media and supporters present only as S.A. Yegorov, insisted that the disciplinary reprimands issued against Vitishko hadn’t, in fact, expired. In his single utterance to the court, reported EWNC representatives, Yegorov said, “The reprimands have not been discharged […] I request the petition be denied.”

After deliberations, Burchevsky turned the early release petition down.

The fence Vitishko is accused of damaging was mildly defaced in 2011. Vitishko was handed a suspended two-year sentence and probation. He and his supports say he never painted the fence, which surrounds the lavish summer home of Krasnodar Regional Governor and Putin-ally Alexander Tkachyov.

On February 14, 2014, Vitishko’s appeal to have his suspended sentence lifted ended instead with a custodial prison colony sentence.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no