Can one raise concerns to the Russian government when it violates laws related to the environment and when it destroys nature? Furthermore, is it possible to do this without becoming the victim of a judicial witch-hunt oneself?
Voicing a critical opinion towards the Russian government can be a dangerous thing to do and standing up against the Russian government on the eve of the Winter Olympic Games can have a grim outcome. The price for environmentalist activism in Russia can be high.
43-years-old Denis knows all about it. He faced terrible consequences when he expressed his criticism towards the Russian government with regard to environmental issues. Some years ago the ecologist pointed the Russian government to its wrong-doings: illegal land-grabbing, destroying nature and illicitly constructing houses on protected areas. Subsequently he was confronted with trumped-up charges against himself.
“Some years ago I demonstrated against environmental violations of the Russian government. A UNESCO protected area was partly destroyed under false pretenses. Putin appropriated this land and distributed it to his allies so they could build houses on it. I followed these events and voiced my objection. Consequently, I was prosecuted myself. False evidence was created; actions I had supposedly executed were forged. The whole case was fabricated and lead to a charge of three years in prison.”
Even though the Russian government tried to sweep Denis’s voice under the rug, fortunately the international community did listen to him. International organizations openly expressed their support to Denis’s case. This resulted into a lot of media attention, bringing Denis into the spotlight. His fame protected him in some way.
“All the attention I received gave me a special position. Due to the fact that the international eye was on me, my personal prison conditions were not very unpleasant. It prevented the Russian authorities from maltreating me while I was in prison. Keep in mind: in order to get this special status I worked very hard. While I was in prison I wrote to international organizations every day in order to get their attention and support.”
Denis continues his account: “I ended up spending 1.8 years in prison 600 miles from home. This did not mean, however, that the judicial system treated me gently in every way. I endured threats of, and transfer to, a strict corrective regime colony and punishments by solitary confinement. When I applied to be released earlier, which is possible after one year, a custodial prison colony sentence was requested for me. I protest the actions of the prosecution service with a 20-day hunger strike. I ended up waiting another 8 months before I was allowed to leave prison earlier. Currently I am not an entirely free man again. I still have to wear an ankle bracelet with GPS. The authorities still keep an eye on me.”
Today, Denis works again as an engineer for international companies and organizations. Unpleasant consequences of his critical outspoken opinion linger on. Apart from the most visible, the ankle bracelet, there are the 74 court cases against him that are still ongoing. Approximately once a week Denis has to be present in court and justify his past actions as an environmentalist. He obliges rather unmoved. The personal sacrifice he has had to make seem to be a different kind of story. In order to protect his family, he divorced his wife and moved to a new house. He tries to limit the contact with his wife and children, thereby avoiding possible jeopardy.
“It seems as if I am a free man, but I am not. The government constantly keeps an eye on me. Quite frankly: I do not feel safe and I seriously fear for my life. For the sake of my own protection I installed cameras everywhere in my house. Do not be surprised when I am killed. There authorities are capable of everything. They rather see somebody like me, a thorn in the side, disappear forever.”
Note: Denis is a fictitious name, but his story is real.