A foremost Russian environmental defender Evgeny Vitishko is serving three years in a penal colony for protecting environment. Together with other members of the Environmental Watch of North Caucasus, he participated in a peaceful rally to attract attention to the violations of environmental laws in the Sochi region. Instead of punishing violators, Russian authorities initiated a flawed trial and silenced him by imprisoning.
The story of Evgeny Vitishko is the story of what happens to environmental activists in Russia. It is the story of sustained persecution and misuse of the law to silence peaceful environmental activism.
In 2012, in a picturesque area of the Black Sea shore, Environmental Watch of North Caucasus (EWNC) discovered a long fence. It blocked public from access to the scenic shore and to the protected beautiful pine forest. Under Russian environmental laws, any construction in this area is prohibited. As it was later revealed, rare protected tree species were destroyed to build a luxury villa allegedly for Alexander Tkachev, the governor of Krasnodar region, and his family.
EWNC appealed numerous times to Russian authorities. Instead of justice, EWNC got a ridiculous answer that the fence did not exist. To document its existence and other environmental violations, Evgeny Vitishko, together with his fellow activist Suren Gazaryan, participated in a peaceful rally. During the rally, some activists wrote on the fence “Alex is a thief” and “Forest for people”. Gazaryan’s and Vitishko’s guilt has never been proved in court.
Instead of investigating environmental violations, Russian authorities charged Vitishko und Gazaryan with “deliberate destruction or damage to property resulting in significant damage and motivated by hooliganism.” (Article 167, Part 2 of the Criminal Code). The trial was flawed, with due process rights violations and significant legal failings noted later by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. Nonetheless, the Krasnodar court sentenced Vitishko and Gazaryan to a three-year conditional sentence with a two-year probation period. Gazaryan was soon confronted with another unjustified criminal case against him and had to flee Russia. Vitishko stayed.
He continued his work and did not stay silent. In 2013 he took part in documenting environmental damage caused by 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. A few days after announcing the publication of the report on the impact of Olympic construction on the Sochi region, Vitishko was arrested. To ultimately imprison him, Russian authorities changed conditional sentence to a three year confinement in the penal colony.
Evgeny Vitishko is recognized as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. He should be immidiately and unconditionally released.