Environmental prisoner Vitishko on hunger strike

vitishko leading a meeting Vitishko leading a meeting. (Photo: Courtesy of Vitishko's Facebook page.)

Yevgeny Vitishko, the environmentalist imprisoned for his vociferous opposition to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, has announced an indefinite hunger strike in a bid for his freedom.

The Tambov Regional court – the region in which Vitishko is serving his prison colony sentence – will on Thursday hear another appeal for his freedom.

But Vitishko announced an indefinite hunger strike on September 29, the day a court in the village of Kirsanov – a however court nearer the Sadovaya Prison Colony than the Tambov Regional court – turned down his appeal to suspend the remainder of his sentence, his lawyer Sergei Loktyov told the the zona.media Russian news portal.

sadovaya prison colony fences The no man's land between the prison yard and the outer fences at the Sadovaya Prison Colony were Vitishko was incarcerated. (Photo: Charles Digges)

Vitishko’s colleagues at the Environmental Watch on the North Caucuses offered no releases corroborating the report of Vitishko’s hunger strike, as their website went offline at roughly the same time as the report surfaced on zona.media.

The upcoming hearing in the Tambov Regional Court will ask the judges for a slightly different amendment to Vitishko’s prison sentence than what was presented to the Kirsanov court, said Loktyov.

At issue on Thursday will be substituting Vitishko’s remained year and four months in prison with a less onerous form of punishment, such as a fine or probation.

Case high on Kremlin radar

The case has recently garnered the highest levels of attention it has received since Vitishko was originally imprisoned in February 2014, in the heat of the Olympics.

Last week, President Vladimir Putin, when confronted by his Council on Civil Society and Human Rights on Vitishko ongoing imprisonment, promised to refer Vitishko’s case to the Prosecutor General for review.

Whether Putin’s ordered review will free the Amnesty International-named Prisoner of Conscience – and the only person in Russia serving jail time for speaking out against the environmental devastation brought by the Olympics to Russia’s protected Black Sea area – is a coin toss.

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)

But it did mark the first time that Putin has made any public remarks regarding Vitishko’s case.

Thursday’s make-or-break hearing

Several opportunities to free Vitishko have passed up. Numerous appeals have been rejected in Tambov regional courts, and he seems also to have been passed over by a presidential amnesty in honor of Russia’s May 9 Victory Day that was slated to free more than 60,000 non-violent offenders over a six month period.

But that prisoners’ amnesty is scheduled to end the day of Vitishko’s hearing, which would grant the Putin administration a degree of face-saving camouflage should the Kremlin extend the amnesty to Vitishko.

Indeed, the heart the charges against Vitishko are that he put graffiti on a fence erected in a public forest on the Black Sea coast that still surrounds the summer mansion of former Krasnodar Regional Governor Alexander Tkachyov. Vitishko denies he had any part in spray-painting the fence.

Independent lawyers in Russia have told Bellona that charges of property damage like those levied against Vitishko would at most warrant a fine.

But, they have also said it depends on whose fence get’s spray-painted.

Simmering resentments could play role in hearing’s outcome

Tkachyov – who was just one recipient of sweetheart land-grabs in national parks that went all the way to Putin himself – played an instrument role in fudging local environmental legislation to make the building of venues for Putin’s $51 billion Olympics possible, according to a damning report authored by Vitishko, Suren Gazaryan and their colleagues at EWNC.

Vitishko and Gazaryan were accused of spray-painting “This is Our Forest” the fence in 2011. In 2012 were both initially handed suspended two-year sentences and probation, which both appealed in 2013.

Gazaryan later fled to Estonia, where he received political asylum when charges against him in Russia mounted. Following the fence incident, Gazaryan discovered the Black Sea yacht pier serving Putin’s lavish seaside mansion. An altercation with private security guarding the dock led to Gazaryan possibly facing charges of attempted murder.

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

If Vitishko’s prison sentence is overturned on Thursday, EWNC activists say Gazaryan should logically be allowed to return to Russia as well.

The fence, meanwhile, still stands.

 

Charles Digges