MOSCOW, February 12 (RIA Novosti) – A court in the same region as the Olympic host city of Sochi ruled Wednesday to jail an environmental activist for three years in a case that rights groups say is an attempt by authorities to suppress criticism of the Games.
Yevgeny Vitishko received a suspended sentence for defacing the presumed residence of the local governor in 2011. That punishment was upgraded to a custodial sentence in late December, but Vitishko was allowed to remain free pending appeal.
He was detained earlier this month, however, and sentenced to 15 days in prison on hooliganism charges for swearing in public.
Vitishko’s appeal to have the jail sentence for vandalism overturned was rejected Wednesday by a court in the city of Krasnodar, according to a statement from Environmental Watch for the North Caucasus, the organization to which he belongs.
His hearing was originally scheduled to take place on February 22, a day before the close of the Games, which began last week. Police detained Vitishko over the swearing incident, apparently prompting an earlier hearing.
Vitishko and a fellow activist, Suren Gazaryan, were originally given suspended sentences for writing "thief" on a fence believed to surround a property belonging to Krasnodar territory governor in a town outside Sochi in 2011 and for damaging one of its sections. The pair claimed the gesture was in protest at what they said was illegal construction on protected territory that was not directly linked to the Games.
Gazaryan fled Russia in 2012 over fears of further prosecution and received political asylum in Estonia.
The decision to upgrade Vitishko’s suspended sentence to a custodial sentence was motivated by his alleged violation of the terms of probation when he reportedly left his home town of Tuapse without authorization.
Advocacy groups – including Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace Russia, the Khimki Forest Movement and the Ecological Watch for the North Caucasus – have condemned Vitishko’s arrest as politically motivated and called for his immediate release.
Rights groups say the original move to replace the suspended sentence came shortly before the Olympics opening and signaled escalated pressure on local activists and journalists criticizing the ambitious, if much-criticized, construction projects in Sochi.