Staunton, December 24 – Following an international campaign, the Russian courts have released from prison camp Yevgeny Vitishko who was serving a three-year sentence for his exposure of official violations of the Russian environmental law in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
Not surprisingly and despite both the outrageousness of the charges against Vitishko and the games prosecutors and the courts have played to delay his release, many environmental organizations are thrilled by his release, especially since he had begun a hunger strike which left him near death (kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/274759/).
But as pleased as anyone of good will or even good sense must be about his release, it would be a dangerous act of self-deception to think that this represents a change in Moscow’s approach given that there are two other cases involving ecologists, one who is in jail and another who appears headed there, that have not received as much attention.
The second Russian ecologist, Sergey Nikiforov, has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. He is serving a four year sentence for his activities in defense of the environment and the Event community in Amur Oblast (amnesty.org.ru/asp/2015-12-21-rossiya/).
Nikiforov was initially sentenced in September 2015 to five years in prison and a 16 million ruble (220,000 US dollars) fine after he helped his fellow Events risk the environmental destruction of their land by a Russian firm that sought to open a mine there. He was accused of financial machinations and convicted after a court refused to accept documents exonerating him.
And the third ecological activist, Valery Brinikh, now faces trial in Adygeya supposedly for stirring up ethnic hostility when he in fact was seeking to mobilize the population in a particular region to resist the destruction of the environment. Given the other cases, he likely faces prison as well (sova-center.ru/misuse/news/persecution/2015/12/d33531/).
Given these two cases – and there are others as well – one should give one cheer that Vitishko has been released but no more than that given that the Russian state under Vladimir Putin is prepared to run roughshod over the rights of environmentalists and the population in order to defend the profits of their crony capitalists and other political allies.