December 23, 2015

Russia: environmental rights defender Evgeny Vitishko to be released from prison

On 22 December 2015, the Tambov regional court confirmed the release of Russian environmental human rights defender Mr Evgeny Vitishko, who had been detained since February 2014.

On 22 December 2015, the Tambov regional court confirmed the release of Russian environmental human rights defender Mr Evgeny Vitishko, who had been detained since February 2014.

The regional court confirmed the decision taken by the Kirsanov district court on 10 November 2015 and accepted to commute the sentence.The judge determined that the human rights defender, who had still to serve one year and two months in prison, could be conditionally released. However, Evgeny Vitishko will not be allowed to travel outside the Tuapse district without the previous consent of the penal authorities.

Evgeny Vitishko is an environmental rights defender with Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC), an independent group that published a report on environmental damage caused by preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. For years, the group has led protests and repeatedly spoken out publicly on these issues. Its members have previously been subjected to threats and harassment due to their work.

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. 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 received a suspended sentence of three years in prison with two years' probation in June 2012 . 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. Since his conviction, Evgeny Vitishko has reported being kept under constant police surveillance.

On 20 December 2013, the Tuapse City Court converted Evgeny Vitishko's three-year suspended sentence to a jail term to be served in a settlement colony for an alleged breach of curfew, one of the conditions of his probation.

While awaiting the decision of the Appeal Court on this sentence, on 3 February 2014, Evgeny Vitishko was arrested along with six other members of EWNC, who were later released. However, that same day, Evgeny Vitishko was convicted of petty hooliganism for allegedly swearing at a bus stop and sentenced to fifteen days in detention. On 12 February 2014, the Krasnodar Appeals Court ruled to uphold a decision to enact a three-year custodial sentence against environmental human rights defender and he was transferred to a penal colony to serve out the remainder of his sentence.

Front Line Defenders welcomes the Tambov regional court's ruling and the release of Evgeny Vitishko. However, it remain deeply concerned at the arbitrary arrests, the harassment and the continued criminalisation of environmental rights defenders in Russia.


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