Rings of injustice

21 February 2014

Condemned to three years in a Russian prison for spray painting a fence? It sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it? But the unbelievable is happening to many activists across Russia and one man in particular - Evgeny Vitishko.

© Frontline Defenders

© Frontline Defenders

Evgeny, an environmental activist for the rights group Ecological Watch for the North Caucasus (EWNC) is coming to terms with the sickening reality of living behind bars for three years.

In 2012, Evgeny was convicted of vandalism for spray painting the fence of what he said was a local governor’s property in a national forest where construction is forbidden. In February this year he was condemned to 3 years in a medium-security prison for allegedly violating his parole conditions. It’s a particularly curious case. At the time of the court’s ruling, Evgeny was serving a 15 day sentence, charged with hooliganism for swearing in public. And at the time of his arrest he was set to release a report on the environmental destruction of the construction of the Sochi Olympic Games.

Russia has a notorious record of silencing those that speak out for the environment and human rights – I and the other members of the Arctic 30 would only know too well. But we, along with some of Russia’s most notorious political prisoners, including Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were granted Amnesty in December last year. Some speculate that it was to avoid international criticism during what is now Russia’s pride and joy – the Sochi Olympic Games. What may have been responsible for saving me from my ill-fated future may be responsible for Evgeny’s incarceration.

So what’s all the controversy about? Well, Sochi has been criticised for being one of the most environmentally destructive games. The ecosystem of the Mzymta River in Sochi National Park was almost completely destroyed. Water from the river used for the water supply of the city is now contaminated. And a considerable part of the wetlands in the Imeretinsky Valley were irreversibly damaged. With temperatures of six degrees last week and the use of 450,000 cubic metres of stored snow, some even question why Sochi National Park was even selected to host the games in the first place. There are places in Russia that are much more climatically suitable to host the Winter Olympics than the Black Sea coast.

© Vadim Kantor. Greenpeace activists in the Mzymta Valley, 2008

© Vadim Kantor. Greenpeace activists in the Mzymta Valley, 2008

Environmental groups including Greenpeace and the EWNC protested during the construction of the games after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ignored their recommendations. Many members of the EWNC, including Evgeny, have been arrested and imprisoned for their activities and virtually all of its members have been harassed by the government or police. The arrest of Ivan Karpenko is particularly close to my heart, Ivan was arrested and detained for five days when he asked police to introduce themselves when they tried to move him away from a support picket for the Arctic 30.

While Sochi may be one of the most controversial Olympic Games, it isn’t all bad. The world is watching Russia and as a result many activists have taken this opportunity to highlight Russia’s controversial human rights issues, in particular its gay rights. Gay rights protests were organised in 19 cities across the globe and many brands, including Google, have shown their support by adopting rainbow logos. But Russia still seems to be hell bent on punishing those who are bravely determined not to give up on their right to express their opinion, even with all the cameras watching. Former Italian MP, Vladimir Luxuria, held up a banner at the games that displayed the words “Gay is OK”, as a result Vladimir was arrested and then later released. And members of the Pussy Riot group were whipped in public by police for singing a song outside Sochi.

My thoughts are with Evgeny, who has just begun a hunger strike in protest against his unjust sentence. Trust me when I say, anytime spent in a Russian prison is too long, so three years will feel like a lifetime. Millions of people came together to speak out against my injustice, I hope people will do the same for Evgeny. Please take action now!