Russia: Release of Sochi campaigner jailed on absurd charges long overdue

The long overdue release of a campaigner jailed after he protested against the devastating environmental impact of the Sochi Olympic Games is no doubt a great relief for him and his family, but his imprisonment on absurd charges was a prime example of the disturbing tactics used by the Russian authorities to silence critics, said Amnesty International today.

Evgeniy Vitishko of the NGO Environmental Watch on North Caucasus was jailed for 15 days in February 2014 on trumped-up charges of “hooliganism" after he was accused of "swearing at a bus stop”. Immediately after serving this term, he started serving the three-year sentence for allegedly damaging a fence that was concealing illegal construction in a protected forested area.

Today a court ordered his release, effective 20 November, after having served half of his sentence in a prison colony in Russia’s Tambov region.

“After months of mounting international and domestic pressure, the Russian authorities have finally given way and agreed to release Evgeniy. However, this is simply a cynical move by the Russian authorities whose only intention was to keep him behind bars – out of sight and mind – during the Olympics,” said Sergei Nikitin, Director of Amnesty International Russia.

He should never have been imprisoned in the first place. The fact that he served 20 months in a prison colony is an aberration. The next step to correct this travesty is to clear him of all charges.

He was arrested and jailed after he and his colleagues protested against the rampant deforestation and other damage to the environment caused during the construction of the Sochi Olympic park.

During Vitishko’s time in prison the authorities flung accusations at him to block his chance of parole. The litany of absurd “violations” included giving an item of clothing to another prisoner who was cold, sitting on his bed at an unauthorized time and even a “negligent attitude towards weeding tomatoes,” as part of his compulsory labour.

Amnesty International is calling on the Russian authorities to clear Evgeniy Vitishko of all charges.