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Sochi activist launches hunger strike to protest jail term

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A leading Russian activist who was jailed after criticising the environmental impact of the Olympic Games in Sochi has gone on hunger strike, his organisation said Monday.

Yevgeny Vitishko was sentenced to three years in a penal colony last week for damaging a fence, a verdict widely condemned by rights groups as an attempt to silence a prominent critic of the Sochi Games.

The 40-year-old geologist has refused all food since the verdict, the Environmental Watch on North Caucasus said in a statement.

"Yevgeny said that he declared a hunger strike on February 12."

Vitishko and his organisation have repeatedly raised concern about the harm caused by massive Olympic building projects in once-pristine wooded and mountain areas of the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

The geologist was convicted in 2012 of painting slogans on a fence during a protest against the construction of what the activists believe is a mansion for the region's governor in a public forest.

He received a three-year suspended sentence but was last week ordered to serve that term in a penal colony for breaking the parole terms of the original sentence.

Police in Sochi on Monday detained a supporter who held up a poster saying "Freedom to Yevgeny Vitishko, environmental prisoner" in a solo picket close to the city hall.

"I was able to stand there for five minutes," David Khakim told AFP by telephone after being accused by police of violating a no-protest rule imposed in Sochi.

Although one-person pickets are permitted under Russian law, a decree signed by President Vladimir Putin outlawed any unsanctioned protests in Sochi during the Games, and Khakim said he was facing a fine.

The International Olympic Committee said at the weekend it received assurances from the Russian authorities that Vitishko's jailing was "not Games related".

But Amnesty International has called Vitishko a prisoner of conscience and his arrest an attempt "to silence one of the most vocal and respected critical voices in the run-up to the Sochi Games."

In a separate incident, police in the southern city of Krasnodar arrested a community leader after he publicly criticised the Olympics.

Asker Sokht, who heads an organisation for Circassians, an ethnic group native to the Sochi area, was detained on Friday and sentenced to eight days in custody for disobeying police, activists said.

The Circassians were displaced from the Sochi region by the Tsarist army in the 19th century. They have been vocally opposed to holding the Games in Sochi.

"It is clear that behind the alleged hooliganism or disobeying charge against him are his critical statements about the Olympics in Sochi," a Circassian activist group said in a letter addressed to the regional governor demanding Sokht's release.

Sokht last week criticised Games' organisers for failing to acknowledge the Circassians in the spectacular opening ceremony on February 7.

A group of Circassian activists in the southern city of Nalchik staged a protest on that day, waving national flags on the city's main square. Police reportedly arrested 25, and some were ordered to serve up to 15 days in jail.

The Sochi Winter Olympics, which finish on February 23, are the biggest event to be held in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union and Putin has staked much of his personal reputation on their success.

A leading Russian activist who was jailed after criticising the environmental impact of the Olympic Games in Sochi has gone on hunger strike, his organisation said Monday.

Yevgeny Vitishko was sentenced to three years in a penal colony last week for damaging a fence, a verdict widely condemned by rights groups as an attempt to silence a prominent critic of the Sochi Games.

The 40-year-old geologist has refused all food since the verdict, the Environmental Watch on North Caucasus said in a statement.

“Yevgeny said that he declared a hunger strike on February 12.”

Vitishko and his organisation have repeatedly raised concern about the harm caused by massive Olympic building projects in once-pristine wooded and mountain areas of the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

The geologist was convicted in 2012 of painting slogans on a fence during a protest against the construction of what the activists believe is a mansion for the region’s governor in a public forest.

He received a three-year suspended sentence but was last week ordered to serve that term in a penal colony for breaking the parole terms of the original sentence.

Police in Sochi on Monday detained a supporter who held up a poster saying “Freedom to Yevgeny Vitishko, environmental prisoner” in a solo picket close to the city hall.

“I was able to stand there for five minutes,” David Khakim told AFP by telephone after being accused by police of violating a no-protest rule imposed in Sochi.

Although one-person pickets are permitted under Russian law, a decree signed by President Vladimir Putin outlawed any unsanctioned protests in Sochi during the Games, and Khakim said he was facing a fine.

The International Olympic Committee said at the weekend it received assurances from the Russian authorities that Vitishko’s jailing was “not Games related”.

But Amnesty International has called Vitishko a prisoner of conscience and his arrest an attempt “to silence one of the most vocal and respected critical voices in the run-up to the Sochi Games.”

In a separate incident, police in the southern city of Krasnodar arrested a community leader after he publicly criticised the Olympics.

Asker Sokht, who heads an organisation for Circassians, an ethnic group native to the Sochi area, was detained on Friday and sentenced to eight days in custody for disobeying police, activists said.

The Circassians were displaced from the Sochi region by the Tsarist army in the 19th century. They have been vocally opposed to holding the Games in Sochi.

“It is clear that behind the alleged hooliganism or disobeying charge against him are his critical statements about the Olympics in Sochi,” a Circassian activist group said in a letter addressed to the regional governor demanding Sokht’s release.

Sokht last week criticised Games’ organisers for failing to acknowledge the Circassians in the spectacular opening ceremony on February 7.

A group of Circassian activists in the southern city of Nalchik staged a protest on that day, waving national flags on the city’s main square. Police reportedly arrested 25, and some were ordered to serve up to 15 days in jail.

The Sochi Winter Olympics, which finish on February 23, are the biggest event to be held in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union and Putin has staked much of his personal reputation on their success.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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