New appellate review should lead to freedom for Russia’s eco-prisoner Vitishko

sochi sign Sochi signs. (Photo: Charles Digges/Bellona)

Yevgeny Vitishko, the environmentalist imprisoned in Russia for supposedly spray-painting an ecological message on a construction fence, will again go to court on November 10 in a hearing that is hoped to lead to his early release.

“We look forward to this court hearing and cross our fingers that it will be the final chapter in the push for Vitishko’s freedom,” said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director. Bellona’s Russian offices have been heavily involved in filing their own appeals on Vitishko’s behalf.

Nikolai Rybakov, director of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona, attended Vitishko’s latest hearing and visited him in jail. Bellona.org is the only news outlet to interview Vitishko in his prison colony.

Vitishko became a lighting rod of resentment from the Kremlin for his criticism of Russia’s prize $51 billion 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games – and the environmental destruction, corruption and shrewd revamping of ecological law that accompanied them.

vitishko in tuapse Yevgeny Vitishko in his hometown of Tuapse. (Photo: EWNC)

The outspokenness of Vitishko and his colleagues culminated in a damning report on the Olympics’ effects, and landed him in Russia’s post-Soviet Gulag.

Over the last month, however, several political and legal signs have emerged that suggest the resentment against him may be starting to melt, and that Vitishko could soon be freed from the Sadovaya Prison Colony in Russia’s Tambov Region.

On October 8, the Tambov Regional Court overturned the decisions of a lower court in the village of Kirsanov, which had thrice rejected Vitishko’s appeal for early release, or to have his sentence commuted to a less severe punishment than prison.

The decision followed an October 1 announcement by Putin, during a meeting with his Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, that he would task the Prosecutor General to review Vitishko’s case – marking the first time Putin had discussed Vitishko in public.

During the meeting, Council head Mikhail Fedotov said Russia’s 2012 law on NGOs had devolved into a “witch hunt” against environmental and human rights groups. In total, the law has shuttered 33 percent of Russia’s NGOs in just three years.

Frustration at earlier hearings

That Vitishko was not freed by the Tambov Court on October 8 was frustrating to his supporters.

Over the weekend, the Kirsanov Court announced on its website (in Russian) that a new hearing for Vitishko is scheduled for November 10, and will focus on a review of its earlier rejections of Vitishko’s appeals.

Vitishko told his colleagues at the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC) by telephone that he, too, had been notified of the new hearing, the group’s director Andrei Rudomakha said in an email to Bellona.

20141107_183631 Sadovaya settlement colony. (Photo: Charles Digges)

The appeals to be examined on November 10 in the Kirsanov court had been filed by Vitishko’s Tambov Region lawyer, Sergei Loktyov.

Loktyov said in an email to Bellona that a new judge in the Kirsanov court will be in charge of reviewing the original appeals as well as rulings on their illegality filed by the Tambov Regional Court.

The Kirsanov court will also be considering a yet newer appeal for Vitishko’s conditional early release filed by Loktyov on October 19, meaning a total of four appeals will be addressed at the upcoming hearing by Judge Sergei Deyev.

This latest appeal was filed after members of the Tambov Regional Penitentiary Service announced they would not oppose an early release for the Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience.

Support of the penitentiary service is critical, said Loktyov – On three prior occasions pushback from the Sadovaya Colony’s administration scuttled Vitishko’s chances at early release.

The conditions of early release

A conditional early release, as explained by Loktyov would essentially take Vitishko out of prison and substitute his punishment with something more proportional to the offence he was jailed for – in this case, supposedly spray painting a fence.

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.

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 also surrounds the summer mansion of former Kransodar Regional Governor Alexander Tkachyov – now Russia’s Minister of Agriculture – who played a special role in bending local environmental legislation to push ahead with the Sochi Olympics.

Vitishko and Gazaryan were initially handed suspended two-year sentences and probation for the fence incident in 2012. They and their 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.

It is as yet unclear whether a conditional release for Vitishko would likewise clear Gazaryan, and allow him to return to Russia from his current residence in Germany.

In 2014, Gazaryan won the Goldman Environmental Prize, often referred to as the “environmental Nobel” for his work with EWNC in exposing Russia’s Olympic corruption.

Charles Digges