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Environmental activists detained, searched in Russia ahead of Sochi Olympics

Russian authorities have detained three activists from a prominent environmental organization since the end of October 2013, Human Rights Watch said today. All three were subsequently released. The group has been critical of the preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. The authorities should stop harassing and detaining environmental activists and allow them to carry out their work, Human Rights Watch said.

“With less than three months to go before the games, the authorities seem to be intensifying pressure on environmental activists in Sochi,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The International Olympic Committee should press the Russian authorities to let activists speak freely about concerns related to the games.”

The three detained activists are with the watchdog Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC). This regional group has sought to draw attention to the impact of construction for the Sochi games on the environment and has led protests against construction of Olympic-related infrastructure in federally protected nature zones.

The authorities detained Andrey Rudomakha, the coordinator of the group, in connection with a year-old criminal libel case against him. Authorities also detained Dmitry Shevchenko, the group's deputy coordinator, for over four hours, and detained Evgeniy Vitishko, another activist for the group, twice on the same day and searched his car.

On October 31, Sochi police detained Rudomakha, who had gone to Sochi to attend an environmental conference, in connection with the criminal libel case. The case was brought in December 2012, after Rudomakha was quoted in a news release as saying that a local judge had acted arbitrarily when she sentenced another environmental advocate to 15 days of administrative detention for protesting local parliamentary election results.

Rudomakha told Human Rights Watch that investigative authorities had not contacted him for almost a year, and that he had assumed the investigation had been dropped. Rudomakha, who lives in Maikop, 250 kilometers from Sochi, also said the written request from investigative authorities authorizing his detention on October 31 specified the dates he would be in Sochi, leading him to suspect that he had been placed under police surveillance. Rudomakha was released three hours later with an order to appear for questioning.

When he was questioned in Krasnodar on November 5, the authorities ordered him to sign a document prohibiting him from leaving the Krasnodar region and the neighboring Adygeya region while the investigation is ongoing, to preclude him from “continuing criminal activities” or sabotaging the investigation.

Rudomakha told Human Rights Watch that, in his view, the measure was aimed at restricting his ability to travel in the region, making it difficult for him to continue his reporting and environmental activism. “What the authorities really want is to keep us very quiet ahead of the Winter Olympics,” he told Human Rights Watch.

Criminal penalties for libel are disproportionate interference with free expression and have a chilling effect on speech in Russia, Human Rights Watch said.

“It's bad enough the authorities have even opened an investigation into criminal libel against Rudomakha,” Gorbunova said. “Using the case to try to deter Rudomakha from doing his work is even worse.”

On November 4, police twice stopped Vitishko, a geologist, as he was driving from Krasnodar to the town of Tuapse, on the Black sea.

Vitishko told Human Rights Watch that traffic police first stopped him as he was leaving Krasnodar. Police searched his car for an hour, claiming it had been in a traffic accident earlier that day and that the driver had fled the scene – allegations that Vitishko denied. The police then let him go.

As he was approaching Tuapse, traffic police again stopped Vitishko. After an hour, more police arrived and took him to a police station where, he said, he was again questioned about the alleged traffic accident and fingerprinted.

Police then accused Vitishko of failing to inform his probation officer that he had left Tuapse district on November 4.

The probation reporting requirement and curfew were imposed on Vitishko in connection with a three-year conditional sentence a court handed him in June 2012, when Vitishko and another EWNC activist, Suren Gazaryan, were prosecuted for “causing significant damage to private property,” in connection with painting graffiti on a temporary construction fence during a protest. The trial was marred by due process concerns, Human Rights Watch said. In December, a court extended Vitishko's probation period and imposed additional restrictions based on an alleged curfew violation that Vitishko has disputed.

On November 6, the Tuapse penal authorities issued Vitishko an official curfew violation warning. Vitishko told Human Rights Watch that because this was the second time authorities have accused him of violating curfew, under Russian law he could be sent to prison to serve his sentence.

“The criminal charges against Vitishko were disproportionate in the first place, and we were concerned that the probation terms were intended to limit his environmental activism,” Gorbunova said. “Vitishko's recent detention and the subsequent curfew violation warning reinforced those concerns.”

On November 9, two officials from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) stopped Shevchenko at the Sochi airport and claimed that he fit the description of a criminal suspect.

Shevchenko's detailed account of the events published on the EWNC website said that the FSB officials refused to show Shevchenko the alert they used to justify his detention, searched his luggage, and checked his passport. The account said that the officials then took Shevchenko to another part of the airport, where a police officer told Shevchenko had been stopped as part of a pre-Olympic counterterrorism training exercise.

The statement said that another policeman had showed Shevchenko an unsigned document with a description of a wanted criminal, whose features did not match Shevchenko's. The police then took him to the departures hall, where they again searched his baggage.

Police officers threatened to charge him with three offenses, the statement said: refusing to show his passport, disobeying police orders, and “using offensive language” in the presence of a police officer. Shevchenko was released without charge after more than four hours in police custody.

In recent years, the EWNC has been the target of sustained pressure by the authorities. In addition to the disproportionate criminal and misdemeanor charges against Vitishko and Gazaryan, the authorities in May conducted intrusive weapons and explosives searches against another activist for the group, Vladimir Kimaev.

EWNC was one of many nongovernmental groups whose offices were inspected by the authorities in March under the so-called “foreign agents” law. The inspection team consisted of officials from local departments of the Federal Security Service, the prosecutor's office, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs' Center for Combatting Extremism.

The inspectors showed particular interest in the organization's activities related to preparations for the Olympic Games, the group said. According to members of the group present during the inspection, the inspectors urged the group not to publish its report on environmental consequences of the Olympic preparations in order “not to harm the country.”

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