Putin to re-examine case of imprisoned environmentalist Vitishko

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

In his first known public remarks on the imprisonment of environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he would task the Russian Prosecutor General with re-examining the case, the state-controlled Tass newswire reported.

Putin’s remarks are propitiously timed, coming a week before an October 8 hearing to appeal for Vitishko’s release in a Tambov Region court – the same region where the environmentalist is serving a three-year prison camp sentence for allegedly spray painting a construction fence in a national forest in 2011.

Vitishko’s prison sentence is widely seen by international and domestic rights groups as Kremlin revenge for the bold revelations of corruption and environmental devastation Vitishko and his colleague Suren Gazaryan – who fled Russia in 2012 – published in a damning report on Putin’s $51 billion showcase 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

fisht-stadium Fisht Stadium, one of the main Olympic venues in Sochi. (Photo: IOC)

Putin’s assignment to the Prosecutor General’s office to revisit Vitishko’s case followed a meeting between the president and Mikhail Fedotov, Ella Pamfilova and Andrei Babuskhin of the Presidential Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights, Fedotov told Bellona in an email.

Recent diplomatic pressure has also been rising on Vitishko’s behalf. Latvia, which currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, has sent an appeal to the Kremlin urging Vitishko’s freedom.

Nikolay Rybakov, director of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona in St. Petersburg said by email he is likewise contacting Norwegian diplomats, who have promised to request visits to see Vitishko in the Sadovaya Settlement Colony near the village of Kirsanov.

Cautious optimism from colleagues and supports

Vitishko’s colleagues from the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus are cautiously optimistic that Putin’s statements may lead to Vitishko’s freedom a year and eight months into his prison sentence.

“The outrageous situation with Vitishko, when a completely innocent man was illegally imprisoned, has finally risen to the level of the president – the highest level of attempts to deal with this issue,” said EWNC’s director Andrei Rudomakha. “I hope that the result will be that Yevgeny finally walks free […] his morale is currently very low – it’s time he be freed.”

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)

Indeed several opportunities to free Vitishko have passed. Numerous appeals have been rejected in Tambov regional courts. 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.

Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director, was encouraged that Vitishko’s case has reached Putin’s ears in a public fashion, but tempered his enthusiasm that the prison keys would immediately turn.

“Let’s cross our fingers that when President Putin says he will take measures to decide the situation with Vitishko, he means he will let justice triumph, and release Vitishko from prison,” he said.

Official resentment of Vitishko still high

That these face-saving opportunities to turn Vitishko loose also suggest that official resentment against him for his strident efforts to expose the sweetheart deals and violations against Russian environmental law perpetrated by the Russian Olympic Committee remains bilious.

After all, Vitishko and Gazaryan brought corruption allegations and accusations of land-grabs of protected national parks surrounding Sochi for the construction of gigantic summer mansions for Putin, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II and other Kremlin cronies right to Putin’s doorstep.

Tall fences make hostile neighbors

The fence Vitishko is accused of damaging was mildly defaced in 2011 by graffiti reading, “This is our forest.” Vitishko and Gazaryan led a 12-person demonstration to protest the fence – which blocks access to a public beach and surrounds the lavish summer home of former Krasnodar Regional Governor and Putin-ally Alexander Tkachyov.

fence A portion of the fence photographed by EWNC after it was painted in 2011 with the words 'This is our forest.' (Photo: EWNC)

Vitishko and Gazaryan were initially handed suspended two-year sentences and probation for the fence incident in 2012. They and their and his supporters say they never painted the fence.

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’s appeal to have his suspended sentence lifted ended instead with a custodial prison colony sentence, a result that lawyers unconnected to the case say is grossly out of proportion to the perceived crime, which should, at most, be a fine.

According to EWNC, Vitishko’s Tambov-based lawyer will try to plead down the rest of Vitishko’s prison sentence to just such a financial penalty.