Yevgeny Vitishko, the Russian environmentalist imprisoned for spray-painting on a fence and his outspoken ecological opposition to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games was freed Tuesday on parole, he and his colleagues told Bellona by telephone.
Andrei Rudomakha, Vitishko’s colleague at the Environmental Watch on the Northern Caucasus said the Tambov Regional Court today upheld an earlier decision from November 10 that would have freed Vitishko and returned him to his home in Tuapse, a Black Sea coastal town 70 kilometers northwest of Sochi on November 21.
An audibly exhausted but relieved Vitishko told Bellona by telephone as soon as he cleared the prison gates that, “I am just happy to be going home.”
He said that he had recovered from his recent 20 day hunger strike that was prompted by the decision not to release him as expected on November 21. “I am feeling pretty good, considering.”
Vitishko had no criticism to offer on the long, two month process of thwarted appeals and legal shenanigans that had delayed his release, and instead offered gratitude to his supporters.
“I want to thank all of the organizations and individuals who supported me through this long process and who didn’t lose hope that their help and pressure would eventually lead to my freedom,” he told Bellona. ” I just want to thank you all.”
He said he was primarily concerned about reuniting with his wife and sons at their home later today. “I have a lot to say about this experience because much needs to change here in Russia and we’ll talk about it after the New Year, but now I just want to get home.”
On November 20, prosecutors launched an 11th hour appeal to keep Vitishko in prison pending a ruling on whether Vitishko should be returned to Tuapse, where he resides with his family, or to the town of Slavyansk-na-Kuban, a four hour drive away, where his address is officially registered by Russian authorities. He hasn’t lived there for over a decade.
Tuesday, prosecutors dropped that challenge, and agreed that Vitishko should be released to Tuapse, provided he not leave the city limits without permission from the probation department. The hearing also included the reading of a telegram from Ella Pamfilova, Russia’s human rights ombudsman, entreating the court to decide fairly in the matter,
After his release on November 21 was scotched, Vitshko announced a hunger strike that lasted 20 days, during which he was forced to continue the labor regime of the colony. Rudomakha has said Vitishko’s health was affected by the long strike.
Some have suggested that the delay in Vitishko’s freedom was prompted by his intention to speak at a human rights forum Moscow following his original release date of November 21. Others, however, have said that the prosecutors’ challenge to his freedom would have been long in the making and that the press release about Vitishko’s speaking engagement didn’t figure into the prosecutors’ calculations to keep him in prison longer.
Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said the case against Vitishko should never have seen the light of day.
“Yevgeny Vitiskho should never have been imprisoned for a second on these charges,” she said in a telephone interview from New York. “The case was distorted and perverse and wildly disproportionate from the very beginning.”
Denber said that Vitishko’s release was a victory for him and his supporters, but didn’t signal any improvement in the Russian government’s relationship to opposition opinion.
“I can only be thrilled for Yevgeny Vitishko and his family, but I think this says nothing about an improvement – we would need to see many other things happen before we could talk about that,” she said. “The government has been in the midst of a fairly profound crackdown on government criticism for the last three years. So far, there is no evidence that the government is changing.”
Four years of legal harassment draws to a close
Prior to the launch of the Sochi Olympics, Vitishko had been serving a suspended sentence for what locally became known as “the fence incident.”
The allegation was that he and another EWNC activist, Suren Gazaryan, had in 2011 led a small demonstration at a construction fence surrounding the summer mansion of Alexander Tkachyov, former governor of the Krasnodar Region and President Vladimir Putin’s local point-man for the $51 billion showcase Sochi Games.
Other participants in the demonstration against the fence – which to this day blocks public beach access in a the Black Sea national park – told Bellona neither Vitishko nor Gazaryan had put the graffiti on the fence. Nonetheless, both received 2-year suspended prison sentences for doing so.
Following the fence incident, Gazaryan discovered the Black Sea yacht pier serving Putin’s lavish seaside mansion northwest of Sochi. An altercation with private security guarding the dock led to Gazaryan possibly facing charges of attempted murder.
Gazaryan later fled to Estonia, where he received political asylum when charges against him in Russia mounted.
On February 14, 2014 – seven days after the Olympics opened – Vitishko’s appeal to have his suspended sentence lifted ended instead with a custodial prison colony sentence.
Human Rights and Environmental groups were enraged not only with Vitishko’s sentence, but with the International Olympic Committee’s silence on the matter after its repeated promises to pressure Russia over human rights and ecological abuses resulting from the Games.
Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director, who has guided the organization’s pressure campaign on Russian authorities, greeted Tuesday’s court decision with relief.
“This is very welcome news and I look forward to continue to work with Vitishko on the environmental challenges facing the Black Sea area and continuing to pressure the IOC to learn from the mistakes arising at the Sochi Olympics” he said. “Vitishko’s freedom is a very welcome Christmas gift.”
In October, 2014, the IOC did decide to take human rights issues into consideration in its future contracts with host cities as a result of abuse reports emerging from Sochi and the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
“We’ll have to see what the IOC actually does to implement those reforms,” said Denber. “But we’re very please that the IOC adopted these reforms because we were very disappointed in the IOC’s reaction to abuses that were taking place in the context of the Olympics, and abuses that were directly related to the Olympics like Vitishko.”
As of Tuesday, Vitishko has served 22 months of a three year custodial sentence. The restrictions accompanying his conditional early release are expected to remain in effect for another 14 months.