A prominent Russian environmentalist and outspoken critic of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi was sentenced to three years in a prison colony this week, sparking outrage from human rights activists. As the New York Times reports, an appeals court in the city of Krasnodar handed down the sentence on Wednesday, upholding a ruling from a lower court in December. The activist, Yevgeny Vitishko, has been ordered to serve time in a penal colony for violating the terms of a suspended sentence handed down in 2012.
Vitishko had co-authored a report on the environmental damage caused by preparations for the Winter Olympics. He and his colleagues from the Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus were planning to present their findings at a news conference in Sochi ahead of last week's opening ceremony. Those plans were derailed, however, after Vitishko was arrested just days before the games began on charges of swearing in public. He was sentenced to 15 days in jail, marking the latest development in what activists say is an ongoing and unjustified crackdown against political dissidents.
"The case against Vitishko has been politically motivated from the start."
"The case against Vitishko has been politically motivated from the start," said Yulia Gorbunova, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Thursday. "When the authorities continued to harass him it became clear they were trying to silence and exact retribution against certain persistent critics of the preparations for the Olympics."
Vitishko received a suspended sentence — similar to parole — in 2012 for spray painting a fence outside a governor's mansion that environmentalists say is built on protected land. A lower court last year determined that he violated the terms of the sentence by traveling outside of his hometown of Tuapse, a city on the Black Sea. Amnesty International has called Vitishko a prisoner of conscience, saying that his name has "become synonymous with harassment of civil society activists in the run-up to Sochi Games."
On Thursday, a spokesman for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said the organization has asked Russian authorities for "further clarification" on the sentence, though he acknowledged that the case involves a "matter that was not in relation to the Olympic Games."
"We prepared this report as though we were in a state of war."
The ruling handed down this week marks the first major sentence against a dissident during the Olympics, though other activists have been detained on less serious charges. The event has been mired in controversy amid allegations of corruption, environmental negligence, and labor abuses. In December, President Vladimir Putin pardoned members of the punk collective Pussy Riot and Kremlin adversary Mikhail Khodorkovsky, under an amnesty bill that was widely seen as an attempt to placate critics ahead of the Sochi games. Much of the focus leading up to the Olympics was on how Russia would handle protests against Putin's anti-gay propaganda laws, though so far, it seems as if environmental activists have been hit hardest.
"For the past three months it’s been impossible for us to live," Dmitri Shevchenko, deputy coordinator for Environmental Watch, told the New York Times. “We prepared this report as though we were in a state of war."