BREAKING: Vitishko appeal granted, but ecologist remains in prison pending further court reviews

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

The Tambov Regional court has declared the ruling of a lower court denying imprisoned environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko a less onerous punishment than prison to be invalid. But Vitishko will remain in his prison colony while that lower court in the Tambov Region village of Kirsanov reviews the decision handed down by the  Regional Court, according to a twitter posting from the hearing by Nikolai Rybakov, director of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona.

If the Kirsanov court, whose composition has changed since it last rejected Vitishko, agrees with the Tambov court to grant the appeal, he could be free and likely released to conditions similar to propation. The date of these new hearings at the Kirsanov court have not yet been made known.

Vitishko’s supporters say that the decision is an inch closer to victory for the environmentalist, and that the next series of hearings in court should turn him loose. The date of those hearings has not yet been set.

But Andrei Rudomakha, EWNC’s director said he was nonetheless “disappointed” that the court hadn’t free Vitishko today.

“Formally, the court made a decision in Vitishko’s favor, and canceled the unjust decision of the Kirsanov court,” he said in an emailed statement. “And there is now a prospect that Vitishko will be freed during the new review of his appeal for a lighter sentence.”

But Rudomakha said the the Tambov Regional court had the full authority to free him as part of granting his appeal, but instead left him in a sort of legal limbo.

“The endless protraction of deciding the simple issue of freeing a completley innocent man is consciously organized torture relative to Vitishko,” said Rudomakha.

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

The Tambov regional court also declared invalid the apparent pass-over of Vitishko in a special amnesty for non-violent offenders issued on May 9 by President Vladimir Putin. This decision has been sent to a different court for review, and is another avenue under which Vitishko could be freed. The date for this hearing is also unknown at present.

Vitishko has served a year and nine months of a three year sentence in the Sadovaya Settlement Colony for allegedly spray painting a construction fence surrounding the summer mansion of former Krasnodar Regional Governor Alexander Tkachyov.

He and his group, EWNC, also mounted a vociferous campaign against the environmental devastation and corruption brought by preparations for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Vitishko has three times been turned down by the Kirsanov court in his appeal to have his prison sentence commuted to a less onerous form of punishment, most recently on September 29. In response he has declared a hunger strike for his freedom.

But his supporters have been hanging their hopes on an announcement by Putin himself that he would request the Prosecutor General to review Vitishko’s case.

Putin’s remarks, which came on October 1, were the result of a meeting with his Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, and mark the first public comment on the Vitishko case offered by Putin.

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

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.

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.