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Russian Federation: Risk of imprisonment for environmental rights defender, Mr Evgeny Vitishko
On 28 November 2013, Tuapse City Court considered a request by the Federal Penitentiary Service for the Krasnodar region to imprison environmental rights defender, Mr Evgeny Vitishko. Evgeny Vitishko received a suspended sentence of three years in prison with two years' probation in June 2012. The request was based on an alleged breach of curfew, one of the conditions of his probation. The conditions attached to his probation were arbitrarily tightened in December 2012 in a move seen as an attempt to curtail his human rights work. The hearing was eventually adjourned to 19 December 2013.
Evgeny Vitishiko is an environmental rights defender with Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC), a Russian-based non-profit organisation that works to protect the environment of the Caucasus region since 1997. He is actively involved in monitoring the environmental impact of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games preparations.
Since 2011, EWNC activists have been challenging the unlawful erection of a fence around the summer residence of Krasnodar governor, Mr Alexander Tkachev, which encompasses a large area of protected public coastal forest in Tuapse. EWNC filed complaints with the Krasnodar Forest Department and sent a letter to then President Dmitry Medvedev. While the Forest Department denied that such a fence exists, the Natural Resources Department stated that the fence, the residence and other buildings inside the area were erected without the required environmental impact assessment. At a peaceful protest organised against the fence in August 2011, EWNC activists were arrested and spent up to fifteen days in administrative detention on charges of 'resisting the police'.
On 13 November 2011, Evgeny Vitishko, Mr Suren Gazaryan, and other EWNC members attempted to map the disputed area. In doing so, they allegedly damaged a section of the fence. They also sprayed slogans such as “this is our forest” on the fence. An investigation on grounds of 'grave hooliganism' was launched against them the same day. Evgeny Vitishko and Suren Gazaryan pleaded not guilty to the charges. In particular, Evgeny Vitishko stated that he was merely filming the incident. However, on 20 June 2012 they were found guilty of “causing significant damage to private property” under section 2 of Article 167 of the Criminal Code. They were sentenced to three years in prison, which were suspended subject to two years' probation with a strict curfew. The judge refused to investigate the legality of the fence.
Since his conviction, Evgeny Vitishko has reported being kept under constant police surveillance. While campaigning for a seat in Krasnodar Parliament, he spent the night of 14-15 October 2012 in a local election commission. Despite the fact that he duly informed the Penitentiary Inspection Office of this in advance, as required by law, in response the conditions of his probation were further tightened in December 2012. He lodged an appeal questioning the arbitrary nature of the additional restrictions.
On 4 November 2013, Evgeny Vitishko was stopped twice by police while driving from Krasnodar and his car was searched. On 21 November 2013, he received a summons to appear before the court on 28 November 2013 to account for an alleged violation of his probation.
During the court hearing on 28 November 2013, Evgeny Vitishko and his lawyer, Mr Alexander Popkov, filed an oral motion to postpone the hearing.
Front Line Defenders believes that the judicial harassment of Evgeny Vitishko is directly related to his human rights work and it was initiated by regional authorities with the goal of preventing his work to defend environmental rights in the run up to the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Front Line Defenders is further concerned by the contradictory nature of a sentence for allegedly damaging a fence whose existence is denied by the authorities, by the disproportionate prison sentence imposed, and by the arbitrary tightening of his probation conditions.