The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles dedicated to Russian political prisoners. This article is dedicated to the Krasnodar environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko, who in 2012 faced charges in the “Tkachev’s dacha” case.

 

An environmental activist, Yevgeny Vitishko is currently serving a sentence in a Tambov penal colony essentially for his attempts to investigate Krasnodar Krai governor Alexander Tkachev’s questionable real estate development.

 

Name: Yevgeny Gennadievich Vitishko
Date of Birth: July 3, 1973

 

Since 2005, Yevgeny Vitishko, a mining engineer and geologist, had been involved in environmental inspections. In 2009, he joined the Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus, an interregional public organization focused on ecological advocacy. For several years, Vitishko actively advocated against the construction of the Tuapse bulker terminal for the transshipment of mineral fertilizers. In 2012, he was involved in efforts to investigate the causes and mitigate the effects of the catastrophic Krymsk flood, which riveted national attention. During preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Vitishko was engaged in public oversight of the process and assisted local residents in solving environmental conflicts.

The “Tkachev’s dacha” case has an interesting background. In 2005, the Federal State Budget Institution "Tuapse Resort“owned by the Department for Presidential Affairs of the Russian Federation—filed a complaint against Arkadiy Popkhadze for “impediments to usage of a land parcel.” Popkhadze was a retired officer who had been residing with his family in a house located on the territory of the resort. The litigation involving Popkhadze and the complainant lasted six years; during that time, the Tuapse District Court made several different decisions. According to Novaya Gazeta, three times decisions related to the eviction of Popkhadze were appealed in the Krasnodar Krai’s court, and three times the case was returned to the district court for a new hearing. In 2011, however, the court made the final decision to demolish the officer’s house.

A key aspect of this story is that Popkhadze’s house was located near the real estate developments that belonged to Alexander Tkachev, governor of the Krasnodar Krai, and Alexander Remezkov, the region’s former vice-governor. As Popkhadze stated, “I was fighting for my house for five years. But it looks like I have disturbed the sleep of the high-ranking officials. I think in my case, connections, including those in Moscow, became more important than the law.”

Among the activists who supported Popkhadze was Suren Gazaryan, Vitishko’s colleague at the Environmental Watch. It was Popkhadze who told Gazaryan about the renowned “Tkachev’s dacha,” which had been built on the land of the Tuapse Resort.

According to another Environmental Watch activist, Viktor Chirikov, in February 2011, representatives of the Environmental Watch, the Yabloko Party, and the Solidarnost’ movement conducted an inspection of this “dacha.” Finding that access to the forest (where the “dacha” was located) was blocked, the activists cut through barbed wire and found themselves in a secure area. As a result, they were detained by private security guards, who called the police. All of the activists were brought to the District Office of Internal Affairs (ROVD). After brief proceedings, some of these individuals were released, while others were sentenced to 5–7 days in detention for disobeying the police officer (Article 10, part 3, of the Code of Administrative Offences). Vitishko, who came to ROVD to inquire about his colleagues, was also detained and sentenced to 10 days on the same charges. Although Vitishko had been involved in work on the “Tkachev’s dacha” case, he had not participated in the inspection that day.

After those events, Vitishko and Gazaryan continued their investigations. They found out that 10 hectares of land had been seized in Blue Bay. They also discovered an illegally erected fence surrounding a construction site on state forest lands, as well as concrete walls with barbed wire blocking access to the seashore on two sides. According to Gazaryan, “that violated all known standards, Russian water, and forest codes.”

According to quite a few sources, Vitishko was convicted because of his public stand against and criticism of the authorities; in particular, he had exposed environmental violations during the preparations for the Sochi Olympics.

In June 2011, the Environmental Watch received documentary evidence that the land parcel in the middle of the secure area had been rented by Governor Tkachev. All requests for removal of the fence surrounding the “governor’s dacha” submitted by the environmentalists to different government agencies went unanswered. Moreover, according to the Forestry Department of the Krasnodar Krai, neither the fence nor any other structures blocking public access to the public lands existed.

On November 14, 2011, the environmentalists conducted another inspection visit to the seized area of the state forest. As a result of this inspection, criminal charges of “willful damage to other people’s property committed through hooligan motives” were brought against Vitishko and Gazaryan. According to investigators’ official statements, on that day, Vitishko and Gazaryan bent down a section of the fence and spray-painted several insulting slogans on it, such as “Sanya Is a Thief” (referring to Governor Tkachev), “Tkachev Should Leave,” “This Is Our Forest,” and “Tkachev Is a Crook and Thief.” According to the statements of witnesses, neither Vitishko nor Gazaryan sprayed any graffiti. A criminal case, however, was opened against both individuals. In June 2012, they were found guilty and sentenced to three years in a prison colony, with a conditional two-year probation period. A few months later, another case was fabricated against Gazaryan after he found an illegal construction site for a yacht dock near the so-called “Putin’s palace” at Cape Idokopas. To avoid persecution, Gazaryan was forced to leave the country.

In the meantime, Vitishko continued his activist work. For doing so, he paid a heavy price: he lost his freedom. In December 2013, the conditional sentence was replaced by an actual term in a penal colony. In the official version of events, Vitishko “failed to meet the expectations of the court,” since he “consciously and systematically” violated the “conditions and requirements of the conditional sentence.” According to Vitishko’s lawyer Alexander Popkov, these “systematic violations” were limited to two episodes: a visit to probation officer on Thursday instead of Wednesday, and incorrect reporting to the inspectors about his movements.

The “real” reason behind the decision, however, was probably quite different. In an interview with IMR, Dmitriy Shevchenko, deputy coordinator of the Environmental Watch, said that Vitishko “had worked on a whole number of issues and caused troubles for many people, including those in criminal and business circles.” According to quite a few sources, Vitishko was convicted because of his public stand against and criticism of the authorities; in particular, he had exposed environmental violations during the preparations for the Sochi Olympics. Interestingly, before the court decision entered into force, on February 3, 2014, a day before the Olympic Flame was to enter the city of Krasnodar, the environmentalist was arrested and sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention allegedly for swearing at a bus stop (Article 20, part 1, of the Code of Administrative Offences). The same day, under different pretenses, six other members of the Environmental Watch were detained in Krasnodar.

 

Suren Gazaryan (pictured above) is Evgeny Vitishko’s colleague at the Environmental Watch. Both activists were convicted to three years in a prison colony conditionally with a two-year probation period. In 2012, after another criminal case was fabricated against him, Gazaryan left the country.

 

“In my opinion, there was a blend of two things: personal revenge of the governor, and the enthusiasm of the intelligence agencies for preventing public criticism of the Olympics. Vitishko planned to give interviews to foreign journalists,” said Andrey Rudomakha, coordinator of the Environmental Watch. An Environmental Watch press release states that the goal of the “special operation against Yevgeny Vitishko was to disrupt his environmental advocacy efforts.”

It may seem that the “special operation” was a success: Vitishko was removed from the public arena and isolated from society. The “environmental prisoner,” however, continued to honor his commitments. In the Tambov penal colony (KP-2), Vitishko, referred to by others as a “deputy,” started providing legal support to inmates. In the words of Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of Russia’s Yabloko Party, people trust Vitishko and often ask him for help. “While in the colony he wrote 38 appeals on various cases not relating to him,” said Mitrokhin.

In May 2014, Vitishko revealed the mass beating of prisoners in KP-2. He wrote letters to the head of KP-2, the prosecutor of the Tambov region, and Russia’s ombudsman, which triggered negative reactions from the administration of the penal colony. As a result, the environmentalist was transferred to a more difficult job and was subjected to disciplinary penalties. In addition, the administration began to set other inmates against Vitishko. According to Shevchenko, the administration wishes to get rid of him, leading to concerns that he could be moved to a stricter penal colony.

From the very beginning, there has been significant attention to Vitishko’s case with such organizations as Amnesty International, Bellona, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, and Memorial demanding a halt to the persecution of the environmentalist, which in their view is politically motivated. Rallies in support of Vitishko have been held both in Russia and abroad. Despite everything, Vitishko still believes that justice will prevail, sooner or later.

To support Yevgeny Vitishko and his family, please visit the website freevitishko.org.

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