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Russian environmental activist threatened with new charges

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - December 21, 2012 - Russian authorities should stop harassing environmental activists Suren Gazaryan and Evgeniy Vitishko, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities have threatened to bring new criminal charges against Gazaryan, less than six months after he and another activist, Evgeniy Vitishko, were convicted of causing criminal damage following a flawed, politically motivated trial.

"The authorities are determined to silence Suren Gazaryan and Evgeniy Vitishko because they refuse to be deterred from speaking out on environmental and state corruption issues," said Yulia Gorbunova, a Moscow-based researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities need to end their blatant retaliation against government critics."

In a telephone interview on December 19, 2012, Gazaryan told Human Rights Watch that he had fled Russia and gone into hiding after the Russian authorities declared him "wanted" earlier in December. Gazaryan said he had "no faith" in a Russian court upholding justice in any new case against him, having already been convicted in an unfair trial in June 2012. Gazaryan also told Human Rights Watch that he was in the process of seeking asylum in a European country.

Gazaryan and Vitishko were prosecuted in June for "causing significant damage to private property."

They were accused of painting graffiti on a construction fence surrounding a dacha said to belong to the governor of the Krasnodar region, Aleksandr Tkachev. Following a trial in which there were serious due process concerns, the court convicted them and imposed three-year conditional sentences.

They were subject to a curfew and required to inform the authorities about any changes to their places of residence - both conditions that severely limited Gazaryan and Vitishko's ability to engage in activism and public demonstrations. The convictions are subject to a two-year probationary period. At the time, Human Rights Watch had called on the Russian authorities to drop the politically motivated case.

On August 16, the Gelendzjik police department, in the Krasnodar region, western Russia, opened a new criminal investigation against Gazaryan and questioned him on August 26. The investigation stems from events on August 2, when Gazaryan and a group of fellow activists went to a luxurious Black Sea resort that is alleged to belong to President Vladimir Putin. The activists wanted to examine the resort's private marina, which they believed was being built in violation of legal requirements for an environmental impact assessment and for public hearings required for such construction projects.

Gazaryan told Human Rights Watch that the activists walked along the resort's perimeter road, which is open to the public. He said he had walked ahead to get a better look at the construction. A security guard armed with a rubber truncheon approached on a motorized scooter.

The guard grabbed Gazaryan, he said, twisting his arm behind his back and trying to take his phone. Two more security guards arrived. Feeling threatened, Gazaryan said, he wrestled free, picked up a small rock, and told the guard to keep his distance. Gazaryan said he then turned around, dropped the rock, and walked away. The authorities allege that Gazaryan's actions - which they concede in the investigation files consisted only of picking up a rock and a verbal communication - amounted to threatening to kill the security guard.

In November, Gazaryan received a telegram from a Gelendzjik police investigator, ordering him to appear at the police station on November 13 to be charged. Gazaryan told Human Rights Watch that the telegram had been sent to an address where he no longer lived and that as a result, he received it too late.

Gazaryan's lawyer, Viktor Dutlov, told Human Rights Watch that in December, the Russian authorities declared Gazaryan a fugitive. He said that in light of Gazaryan's probation period under the previous sentence, Gazaryan could face a prison sentence of up to five years if convicted of the new charges.

"The new criminal charges seem designed to put Gazaryan behind bars and silence him," Gorbunova said. "The authorities should immediately drop the charges and let environmental activists carry out their legitimate work."

On December 7, the Tuapse city court extended Vitishko's probation period and imposed additional restrictions based on an alleged curfew violation on October 14, when Vitishko, who was nominated by his political party as a candidate for the Krasnodar region legislative assembly, had to spend the night in the Tuapse electoral precinct. Vitishko told Human Rights Watch that he had informed his probation officer about his absence but that the judge ignored that information.

Gazaryan, who holds an advanced degree in biology, is a board member of Environmental Watch on North Caucasus, an environmental watchdog group. He is known for his criticism of public authorities, including in relation to allegations of state corruption and environmental concerns in Sochi connected to preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

He belongs to the Sochi branch of the Russian Geographic Society. On numerous occasions, members of the group's Sochi branch, together with members of Environmental Watch on North Caucasus, protested against construction of buildings for the Olympics in areas of Sochi that are federally protected natural areas.

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