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3 Years in Prison for Spray-Painting a Fence? Now's Your Chance to Say ‘No.’

Screen capture from freevitishko.org.

Screen capture from freevitishko.org.

Russian environmentalist Evgeny Vitishko is spending the next 3 years of his life in prison, after a kangaroo court convicted him earlier this year of spray-painting a fence built illegally on national park land in 2012. Before his arrest and imprisonment, Vitishko worked tirelessly to expose crimes against the environment, including damage caused by the construction of a lavish resort for the governor of Krasnodar. 

This summer, activists at freevitishko.org launched a signature drive through the global civic organization “Avaaz.” People wishing to show their support for the cause, which demands Vitishko's immediate and unconditional release, can add their names to the petition here.

Evgeny Vitishko is a foremost Russian environmentalist, a member of the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC), and a veteran of the environmental movement in the North Caucasus region. For many years, he has worked to prevent the destruction of Russia's national parks and publicized pollution on the Black Sea shore. Vitishko has also inspired other grassroots activists across Russia, promoting the principle of “think globally, act locally.” 

The government began persecuting Vitishko in earnest, after he and fellow environmentalist Suren Gazaryan publicized environmental damage caused by the illegal construction of villas for Russia's rich and powerful. (The mansions, allegedly belonging to President Putin, Krasnodar Governor Tkachev, and Patriarch Kirill, are located on protected land along the Russian Black Sea.) Vitishko and Gazaryan revealed that construction workers were destroying the habitat of an endangered species of pine tree.

Noticing an illegally installed fence, Vitishko and Gazaryan filed complaints with Russia's environmental protection agencies, but officials responded by denying the existence of the fence. To prove the authorities wrong, Vitishko and Gazaryan held a demonstration at the fence, where someone in attendance spray-painted protest slogans criticizing the Governor and the illegal construction. Police responded by charging Vitishko and Gazaryan with the “deliberate destruction or damage to property resulting in significant damage and motivated by hooliganism,” citing article 167, section 2, of the Russian Criminal Code. The two environmentalists faced a 3-year suspended sentence with a 2-year probation period.

When the state threatened to charge him with other crimes, Gazaryan fled the country. In 2014, he won the Goldman Prize for protecting the environment.

Evgeny Vitishko stayed in Russia and continued his work. In November 2013, prior to the Sochi Olympic Games, he announced the publication of a new report of the EWNC on the environmental impact of Olympic construction in Sochi. Vitishko highlighted how Russia amended several federal laws to accommodate Olympic construction on protected lands. Indeed, the changes severely diluted Russia's environmental protections, accelerating development throughout Russia (not just in Sochi). According to Vitishko, Russia now faced the threat of deforestation on a massive scale, to the degree that the entire planet's environment will be affected.

In December 2013, the authorities changed Vitishko's suspended sentence into a real one, sending him to a penal colony, on grounds that he supposedly “violated his curfew.” He is imprisoned in Tambov, to this day.

If the “Free Vitishko” campaign collects over 20,000 signatures in the next few weeks, Avaaz will distribute the petition through its global platform, putting the effort on track for 100,000 signatures, granting Vitishko's case some much needed publicity. Russia's environmentalists are relying on the international community's solidarity.

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