Vitishko to get another shot at freedom, as treason rumors swirl around Russian NGOs

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)
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)

Publish date: October 19, 2015

Written by: Charles Digges

In another small step toward freedom for imprisoned Russian environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko, the Tambov Regional Penitentiary service has said it will voice no opposition to the Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience’s early release.

In another small step toward freedom for imprisoned Russian environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko, the Tambov Regional Penitentiary service has said it will voice no opposition to the Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience’s early release.

But as Vitishko inches closer to walking out of prison, numerous environmental NGOs in the Chelyabinsk Region of Russia may soon be facing charges of treason in a new backlash against environmentalists, one former NGO director from the area told Bellona.

The emergent campaign against these organizations, which seek to redress Russia’s nuclear industrial legacy in the country’s most radioactively contaminated region, lend new urgency to ending Vitishko’s entanglements with the legal system for his vociferous opposition to the Kremlin’s prize 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, and the environmental devastation they caused.

Other environmental organizations continue to fair poorly under the heel of Russian officialdom, including Bellona’s own Bellona Murmansk. Last week the group was forced to end its work as an NGO as a result of it’s “foreign agent” status.

NGO Grafitti The office of a Russian NGO defaces with the words "foreign agent." Credit: Memorial

Bellona Murmansk will continue its work on nuclear issues, renewable energy and industrial pollution under a different legal structure – something many Russian NGOs have been forced to do since the adoption of Russia’s punitive 2012 NGO laws.

Tambov’s Penitentiary service, which has opposed Vitishko’s early release on several occasions, announced its new position on Friday. The announcement brought the filing of another appeal for Vitishko’s conditional early release by his attorney, Sergei Loktyov.

Loktyov told the Kavkazsky Uzel Russian news portal that the appeal based on the Penitentiary Service’s support of Vitishko’s conditional early release means a hearing must take place within 14 days.

“This drastically increases Vitishko’s chances of conditional early release,” Loktyov told the portal. “We have filed several appeals for his release, but the prison administration didn’t support them. Now everything has changed and the prison administration intends to support his conditional early release – I am very glad.”

The announcement is the latest of several encouraging signs and court decisions signaling that Vitishko – who is a year and nine months into a three year prison colony sentence – could be freed early.

But that even his jailers are saying there’s no reason to keep him behind bars hasn’t led to expedited hearing to release him is frustrating to his supporters.

Hopes dangled – and dashed

Vitishko on October 8 was inches from going free when the Tambov Regional court struck down a lower court’s ruling denying Vitishko’s appeal for release. The higher court sent its ruling back to a court in Kirsanov, a small village near the Sadovaya Prison Colony where Vitishko is being held. The Kirsanov court has on three occasions refused Vitishko’s early release.

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 Court also ruled that a May 9 amnesty for non-violent offenders should also have applied to Vitishko. That also was sent on to another court for review.

According to Andrei Rudomakha, the director of Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, with which Vitishko has long worked, the Tambov Court easily could have sent Vitishko home during the October 8 hearing – but for unknown reasons decided not to.

Hopes were high for that particular hearing as Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced during an October 1 meeting with his Council on Civil Society and Human rights that he would direct the Prosecutor General to investigate Vitishko’s case.

No date has been set for the Kirsanov court’s review of the Tambov Court’s reversal of its decision.

Looming treason cases?

Delayed activity on Vitishko’s case is all the more alarming as treason charges are rumored to be in the works against a number of ecologists working in the Chelyabinsk Region, where the Mayak Chemical Combine is located.

mayak_reflecton-320x213 A reflection of Mayak's abandoned caisson plant on the river Techa. Credit: Courtesy of Denis Sinyakov/

Mayak, birthplace of the Soviet atomic bomb, continues to make components for nuclear weapons, and stores and reprocesses spent nuclear fuel. In 1957, a waste storage tank at Mayak exploded in the notorious Kyshtym disaster, raining radioactive contamination throughout the Chelyabinsk Region. Its ongoing fuel reprocessing operations have turned the Techa River and nearby Lake Karachai into radiological hazards

Nadezhda Kutepova, who used to head the now-dissolved NGO Planet of Hopes in Mayak’s closed hometown of Ozersk, just received political asylum in France due to several official Russian television broadcasts accusing her of espionage. Her group specialized in protecting victims of the 1957 disaster and campaigned for relocation of some 25,000 people who live in villages dotting the Techa’s poisoned banks.

Nadezhda-Kutepova Nadezhda Kutepova. (Photo:

Over the weekend, Kutepova told Bellona other NGOs in the Chelyabinsk region, which, like hers, were targeted as ‘foreign agents’ under the 2012 NGO law, are also being targeted with treason allegations.

One is For Nature, a named foreign agent NGO run by Andrei Talevlin, a professor at Chelyabinsk State University.

Talevlin’s NGO, like Planet of Hopes, works with victims of nuclear mishaps and disasters caused by Mayak.

Kutepova fled Russia on the advice of her lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, who specializes in treason and human rights issues.

“I saw all those films about Nadezhda. A central TV channel used the term ‘industrial espionage,’ which in Russia equals espionage — part of treason, basically. Nadezhda’s fears were real,” he told The Moscow Times newspaper.

He added that, “ecologists are often persecuted,” and that Russia is seeing a precipitous spike in espionage cases compared to previous years, the paper reported.

Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona – who himself battled espionage charges for five years before he was acquitted – agreed with Pavlov.

Nikitin  said that levying treason charges has been made all the easier in recent years by changes in Russian security laws, turning them into banana peels that any journalist or environmentalist could slip on. This is doubly so for anyone living or working in a closed nuclear city, like Kutepova’s Ozersk, where local affairs are dictated by the defense and security services.

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