Criticising environmental and state corruption leads to threats and
intimidation, says Suren Gazaryan

John Vidal theguardian.com, Monday 28 April 2014 07.00 BST

Suren Gazaryan of the Environmental Watch on North Caucasus looks at
waste close to the 2014 Sochi construction site. Photograph: Mikhail
Mordasov/AFP/Getty Images

Criticising Russian state projects and the destruction of the
environment leads to police intimidation, trumped up criminal charges
and prison, says a green activist forced to seek political asylum
in western Europe after protesting against a luxurious mansion being
allegedly built for Vladimir Putin and the destruction of protected
wilderness for the winter Olympic games in Sochi.

"It has become almost impossible now to object to grand projects
which have the authorities behind them. People are threatened and
intimidated," says zoologist Suren Gazaryan, who on Monday won a
$175,000 prize in the Goldman awards, the equivalent of a "green
Oscar". He is now in Germany after receiving political asylum in

Gazaryan, with other members of Russian ecological group Environmental
Watch on North Caucasus group (EWNC), has been a leading critic of
the developments along the Black Sea coast and of the corruption
surrounding the Olympics. In the runup to the Sochi games last year,
the group issued photographs of the damage created by new roads and
building in the national park and the Caucasus reserve. "There has
been massive destruction of natural landscapes," he says.

Rubbish dumped near the Olympic Park in the Russian Black Sea resort
of Sochi. Photograph: Mikhail Mordasov/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this year, the group published a report on the environmental
impact of the games, citing the destructive impact of development
in protected areas, the degradation of habitats for rare animals and
plants, air and water pollution and the loss of Sochi's potential as
a health resort.

Gazaryan, a Russian bat expert, received a three-year conditional
sentence for organising a rally against the allegedly illegal seizure
of forest land for the mansion and was later charged with damaging
a construction site. "My lawyers advised me that because I was on
probation I would automatically be sent to prison. I did not want to
lose three years of my life in jail."

However, his colleague, geologist Yevgeny Vitishko, was sentenced to
three years in a penal colony in February and EWNC has effectively been
closed down, with its bank accounts frozen. Last year it was ordered to
register as a foreign "agent" and the group's offices were raided by
"Centre E", the government department set up to combat extremism and
terrorism. Six members were briefly imprisoned and the group was told
not to publish its report on Sochi-related environmental damage so as
"not to harm the country".

"When the group refused, inspectors said they would examine its
computers for unlicenced software and look into the group's email
account. The inspectors threatened to fine the organisation if anyone
tried to hinder them from examining the computers and emails," said
a Moscow-based spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch. "The authorities
were determined to silence Gazaryan and Vitishko because they refuse
to be deterred from speaking out on environmental and state corruption

"Amnesty International believes that Vitishko is a prisoner of
conscience. The authorities have increasingly harassed several members
of the NGO in the runup to the games, with repeated arrests and brief
detentions, personal searches, questioning of activists themselves
and of their close relatives by police, and unofficial warnings from
police and security officials to abstain from protesting during the
Sochi Olympics," said an Amnesty spokesman.

"If you want to be assertive in Russia you have to be careful. You
cannot appeal against official projects. The situation is very
difficult. All criticism is suppressed. There can be no opposition
to the state. Only a very few articles appear in the media," said


From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress