Recently freed eco-prisoner Vitishko now forced to wear ankle monitor

vitishko ankle monitor.jpg Yevgeny Vitishko showing his new ankle monitor during a Skype interview Thursday. (Photo: Charles Digges/Bellona)

Yevgeny Vitishko, the Russian environmentalist recently freed on parole from a Russian prison colony has been fitted with an ankle bracelet monitor by his local parole board to track his movements in violation of the original terms of his release, he told Bellona in a Skype interview.

The conditions of his parole are already stiff, confining his movements to the Black Sea port town of Tuapse, stipulating regular check-ins with his parole officers, and an absolute restriction on changing his address without miles of red tape.

The new encroachments on his freedom of movement – which could last the remaining year and a month of his parole – came out of the blue and have been protested by Andrei Babushkin of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society.

It was Babushkin, said Vitishko, who negotiated his release without the condition of having to wear an electronic monitoring device in the first place.

vitishko upon release.jpg Vitishko upon his release on December 22, (Photo: EWNC)

But that changed when Vitishko received a call late Wednesday evening from the Tuapse parole office demanding that he come be fitted with the monitor, which now essentially amounts to house arrest.

“They phoned me and said they wanted to fit me with this electronic bracelet,” Vitishko told Bellona while propping up his ankle on his computer table. The device resembles a large faceless watch. “It took them about two hours to get it set up.”

According to reports from his group, the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC), Vitishko was given the sort of ankle monitor that people under house arrest are typically required to wear.

“This is a clear violation of Vitishko’s rights,” said Bellona’s Executive Director Nils Bøhmer. “Even in Russia there should be some minimum observation of the rule of law and respect for basic human rights.”

The device transmits Vitishko’s position and movements to a base station that sounds an alarm if he falls outside its range, Andrei Rudomakha, EWNC’s coordinator wrote in an email..

“It’s irritating,” Vitishko said. “An alarm goes off, the neighbors bang on the wall, the phone rings and you want to smash the little thing,” he said in his characteristically wry manner.

He did, however, express anger over the way in which the decision to give him the ankle monitor was handled.

“I wasn’t shown any order that this thing was supposed to be put on me,” he told Bellona. “I was just told that someone had sent some orders to do so – this is a decision that is supposed to be made by a court.”

Babushkin said he phoned the Tuapse parole board himself to find out who had issued the order to strap Vitishko with the monitoring device, and was told only that, “the orders came from above.”

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)

“That means it’s the Federal Security Service [FSB] or the local prosecutor or both of them together,” said Vitishko.

Representatives of the local office of the FSB, the KGB’s successor organization, and the Tuapse division of the parole board said they would not comment to media on Vitishko’s new device when Bellona reached them by phone Thursday.

Vitishko, a 42-year-old geologist, was ensnared in the Kremlin’s machine to crush dissent against its prized 2014 Sochi Winter Games when he and others from EWNC revealed massive corruption and environmental abuses behind the $51 billion Olympics – the most expensive in history – in a report .

Among those abuses were huge sweetheart summer mansions granted to President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle of Olympic boosters, which were built on protected lands in Black Sea national park areas.

A final version of the EWNC report, cataloging yet more abuses that are still being tallied by the environmentalists, will be published in 2017.

On December 22, Vitishko was paroled after serving 22 months on a three-year sentence for supposedly spray-painting on a construction fence surrounding the summer home of Alexander Tkachyov, who oversaw preparations for the Sochi Olympics when he was governor of the Krasnodar Region. He’s since been now been promoted to Russia’s Minister of Agriculture.

Vitishko said his new ankle monitor was a measure to try to trip him up, or catch him doing something he’s supposedly not allowed to be doing – which he said was ludicrous.

“More monitoring or surveillance is pointless,” he said. “I speak openly over the computer and the telephone, they know where I am all the time and what I’m planning to do – I don’t make a secret of anything.”

He chalked it up to just one more measure of psychological pressure from the authorities that makes his life more complicated – but that it was manageable compared to what he had been through in the prison colony.

2014_Sotsji_NB-l459 (3) Ski lifts at Gazprom's Laura Ski Resort, one of several - like Lunnaya Polyana - that were carved into nature preserves under false pretenses for the Sochi Olympics. Credit: Nils Bøhmer

“I’m still doing my work, we are still revealing violations around ski resorts [constructed for the Sochi Olympics] and how they are encroaching on nature reserves,” he said.

He also said the ankle monitor wouldn’t deter him from his work exposing illegal clear cutting to make way for a bridge between the Black Sea area of Russia and Crimea, which Putin annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.

Rudomakha said he was concerned that ankle monitor technology was so underdeveloped in Russia that Vitishko could fall afoul of false readings on his whereabouts, leading to further legal hassles.

Vitishko on Thursday seemed less concerned.

“It’s the same kind of device they gave [Alexei] Navalny,” he said in reference to the famed anti-Putin, anti-corruption crusader who’s been under house arrest in Moscow since February 2014.

“I’m in pretty good company,” he said with a grin.