Sochi Olympic critics get terrorist treatment

They are fearless, stubborn and increasingly under siege.

Environmentalists, activists and journalists in Sochi have spent

years exposing the dark side of Vladimir Putin’s showcase Winter

Games – and now they’re paying the price.

In recent months, these campaigners have been detained, put on

trial and even barred from going to the beach.

With the Olympics less than two months away, authorities are

stepping up the pressure as these men and women refuse to back down

in their fight to shed light on what they insist has been the

destruction of the environment and a way of life.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch called local authorities

directly responsible for the campaign of harassment against

activists in the Krasnodar region, which includes Sochi. Rights

groups have lamented Russia’s human rights record for years, but

critics say the tactics in Sochi are extreme even by this country’s

notoriously overbearing standards.

”Authorities in the Krasnodar region are harassing the

environmentalists and activists who dare to speak critically of

them in the context of the preparations for the Olympics in

Sochi,” said Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

As the games approach, she said, ”the pressure is

increasing.”

Anna Minkova, a spokeswoman for the Krasnodar government, said

that authorities were ”not aware of the instances of the

harassment of civil activists” that the AP brought forward. She

added that the activities of law enforcement agencies are not under

the regional administration’s authority. Local law enforcement

agencies, which report to federal security bodies, declined

repeated requests from AP to comment both on the overall alleged

clampdown and specific claims of harassment.

Here are some of the local activists and journalists at the

front lines of a struggle to reveal corruption and environmental

damage in the run-up to Russia’s $51 billion Winter Olympics:

SVETLANA KRAVCHENKO, JOURNALIST:

When Kravchenko visited the water company to demand answers

about a supply cut in Sochi, she suddenly found herself surrounded

by security guards.

The veteran reporter pushed her way out of the office and into

the street, as the guards clutched at her clothes and tore off a

sleeve. The next day, Kravchenko was charged with beating up one of

the guards who had towered over her. A medical examination

documented a 0.3 millimeter (microscopic) scratch on his ear. Six

months later Kravchenko was found guilty and fined 10,000 rubles

($300).

Over the years, Kravchenko has documented environmental

travesties in Sochi and the heavy-handed tactics of local officials

as a reporter for the Caucasian Knot, a major Russian web

publication that covers the region. She’s been insulted and

threatened before. But nothing prepared her for the shock of being

put on trial for purportedly beating up a security guard.

Kravchenko said the water supply episode was merely a pretext for

authorities to ”take revenge against a difficult journalist.” The

water company and Sochi judicial authorities did not return

requests for comment.

”Any sane person would ask: How can you beat up a person using

your hands and feet … and he would only get a scratch inside his

ear?” Kravchenko said. ”It’s a blatant lie.”

SUREN GAZARYAN, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST:

For Gazaryan, a zoologist, it all started with a fence.

Gazaryan had been mobilizing his fellow activists to call

attention to what he said was the property of Gov. Alexander

Tkachev – popularly known by his nickname ”Sanya” – situated in a

national forest where construction is forbidden. Last year, he was

found guilty of ”deliberate destruction of property” and handed a

three-year suspended prison sentence. The crime: spray-painting

”Sanya is a thief” on the fence.

Gazaryan said it didn’t matter that it was not him but his

friends who had spray-painted the words. Prosecutors went after him

and his comrade-in-arms Yevgeny Vitishko, another fierce critic of

the games’ environmental record. ”They had to punish us,”

Gazaryan said.

After another outing to inspect what was rumored to be a secret

mansion belonging to Putin, Gazazyan, already on probation, found

himself facing charges of making death threats against a security

guard. Two other guards were listed as witnesses. ”There were

those three bulky guys with truncheons,” said Gazaryan, ”and now

they were saying I was threatening him.”

Gazaryan feared that his suspended sentence would be converted

into real prison time, and fled. He was granted political asylum in

Estonia this year.

His friend Vitishko still lives in the Sochi area. His probation

officer recently petitioned the court to replace his suspended

sentence with a prison term. The hearing is on Thursday.

NATALYA KALINOVSKAYA, CIVIC ACTIVIST AND HEAD OF PSOU

VILLAGE:

Kalinovskaya became an activist when she realized that Olympic

construction was going to go ahead without any discussion with

residents.

”Nobody showed us the bid book, we had no idea what was going

to happen to us,” she said. ”The first projects we saw were

brought by foreign media because there was no other place to find

out about it. We saw that our cemetery, which is now surrounded by

the Olympic venues, was not on the map. I’m sorry but my

grandfather lies there, and it’s a lie to say that this area is

just an open field.”

Kalinovskaya and her neighbors have written dozens of petitions

and organized rallies to protest what they say was illegal

construction on their local beach.

The activist, who already has a degree in economics, is now

getting one in environment studies. She has been repeatedly

detained at protest rallies.

In February, a local court upheld a complaint against

Kalinovskaya by state contractor Olympstroi – and barred her as an

”obstacle” to construction works on the beach. Olympstroi told

the AP that it sued Kalinovskaya because it had information that

she and other activists were ”hampering construction.”

Judge Alexander Yakimenko said in the ruling that ”the presence

of the defendants” on the beach and ”their actions to prevent

construction machinery from operating are presenting a threat to

the schedule of Olympic venues construction.”

Kalinovskay dismisses that.

”We never tried to stop the construction of Olympic venues,”

Kalinovskay said. ”We were only trying to stop the destruction of

the beach. How come Putin isn’t ashamed of destroying the pristine

beach here, in this unique place?”

ANDREI RUDOMAKHA, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST:

Rudomakha leads the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus,

the key force behind exposing illegal landfills, the destruction of

landscapes and endangered trees, and the contamination of the key

waterway in Sochi.

Rudomakha has repeatedly landed in trouble with authorities: He

has been detained at protest rallies, vilified in state-controlled

media, and his office has been raided by the Federal Security

Service.

Now he is being investigated on suspicion of slandering a judge

he claims of convicting an activist over an unsanctioned protest on

officials’ orders.

”Authorities are sending a message,” Rudomakha said: ”Don’t

go too far, or things will get worse.”

DMITRY SHEVCHENKO, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST:

Rudomakha’s deputy Shevchenko, who has extensively reported on

the environmental disaster in Sochi, was held at the airport in the

regional capital of Krasnodar for four hours last month after he

flew in from a business trip.

First, the environmentalist was searched by Federal Security

Services officials. Then he was taken to a police station where

officers would not let him go or explain why they had to hold him.

Policemen told Shevchenko that he was stopped because he fit the

description of a terrorist on a wanted list. He was also told that

his detention was part of security drills that Russian special

services were conducting in the region. He was released from the

police station four hours later without any explanation.

”As I see it, they are holding drills to subdue troublesome

people ahead of the games,” Shevchenko said. ”They know perfectly

well what can damage the games’ image: These are political

activists, journalists, bloggers and environmentalists.”