Staunton, 4 June – Saying that it is a very good thing Russian environmental activists are “still free” to meet, Yeveniya Chirikova, a leader of the movement for the Ecological Defense of Moscow City and Region says that Moscow’s repressive actions have created the need for a new term analogous to “prisoner of conscience” –“prisoner of environment.”
That term applies, she told a Pushkino conference at the end of last week, in the first instance to Yevgeny Vitishko, now serving a three-year prison term on trumped up charges for his work to attract attention to the harm those who organized the Sochi Olympics inflicted on the environment.
Chirikov said that in the 20th century, the main challenges activists had to respond to were in the field of human rights but in “the 21st, they are ecological ones,” and those challenges are even more difficult to overcome because governments and big businesses in the pursuit of power and profit are united against them.
As a result and especially in Russia, things are now very grim for environmental activists. The authorities have killed some, like Mikhail Beketov; they have driven others, like Suren Gazaryan, to flee the county — he is now in Estonia – and they have imprisoned others, like Yevgeny Vistishko.
Efforts to ensure Vitishko’s security are ongoing, both within Russia and around the world, she said. And “today there is an agreement with one company that if we gather 100,000 signatures, then it will pay for an appeal to the European Court [for Human Rights],” Chirikova said.” This possibility must be used.
Ever more environmental protection and human rights groups in other countries are also organizing and demonstrating on behalf of Vitishko, who has become the symbol for many of popular resistance to the environmental destruction being inflicted by the Russian government and Russian corporations. These efforts are documented at freevitishko.org/.
Vitishko, 40, was trained as a geologist and specialized in coastal protection and anti-erosion techniques. He is a member of the North Caucasus Ecological Watch and first attracted attention for his exposes of the dumping of dangerous chemicals into the water supply by major Russian oil and gas companies.
But he became an international celebrity and object of persecution by the Russian government in February 2011 when he and three colleagues exposed the way in which the environment was being harmed by the construction of a dacha for Kuban Governor Aleksandr Tkachev. They were sentenced to ten days detention for resisting arrest.
In December 2011, the Russian authorities launched a criminal investigation against Vitishko and his fellow activists, and in May 2012, he and Gazaryan were tried and convicted on trumped up charges. The two were sentenced to three years imprisonment, but at that time, the sentence was suspended.
The Eco-Hostage Organization declared that Vitishko and Gazaryan were victims of persecution for the defense of nature. The Union of Solidarity with Political Prisoners said the charges against them were politically motivated. And Russia’s Memorial included Vitishko in its list of political prisoners.
But despite this official persecution, Vitishko continued to work to expose the destruction of the environment by those organizing the Sochi Olympics. As a result, on December 20, 2013, the courts changed his sentence and ordered him imprisoned. According to Freevistisko.org, “the initiators [of that change] were the local siloviki [law-enforcers].”
Immediately, the most important international environmental and human rights organizations spoke out in his behalf: Bellona, Greenpeace, and Memorial, among others. But to date, the Russian government has been deaf to their appeals for justice, and Vitishko remains incarcerated in a prison colony in Tambov Region.
To advance his case while continuing to work to protect the environment, Russian activists have both met with journalists to try to attract more coverage of Vitishko and their issues and launched an online journal, Ecology and Law to spread the word.
The latest issue – available online — is devoted to the use of social media and Internet technologies in environmental activism. In addition to articles and interviews about such issues, it features a poster in defense of Yevgeny Vitishko.