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Russian Environmental Activist Granted Asylum In Estonia

Suren Gazarian examines a black substance that he said was part of a mudslide emanating from an illegal dump, close to the 2014 Olympics construction outside the Black Sea resort of Sochi in April 2011.
"In practice, nothing displeases the authorities more than someone writing the truth about them."

That's prominent Russian environmentalist and blogger Suren Gazarian speaking to Reporters Without Borders in a Skype chat from Estonia a few months ago.

Gazarian, 38, was granted a three-year residence permit by Tallinn this week after fleeing to the Baltic country in December due to fears of unjust imprisonment regarding a criminal case that was launched against him in August.

Gazarian, a member of the Russian opposition’s Coordinating Council and the watchdog group Environmental Watch On North Caucasus, is perhaps best known for his efforts to stop deforestation in Sochi National Park connected with construction projects for the 2014 Winter Olympics. He also just received the National Environmental Prize awarded by Greenpeace Russia.

Gazarian and fellow activist Yevgeny Vitishko were convicted in June 2012 of causing criminal damage after participating in a deforestation protest near the luxury villa of Aleksandr Tkachev, the governor of Russia's southern Krasnodar region, which was built in a protected forest area. They were accused of painting graffiti -- saying, "This is our forest!" -- on a construction fence that surrounded Tkachev's dacha. The pair was sentenced to three years of probation.

Suren Gazarian: "Now I can make long-term plans and think about work." (file photo)
Suren Gazarian: "Now I can make long-term plans and think about work." (file photo)
The New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) described their trial as "flawed and politically motivated."

Gazarian's legal troubles took a more serious turn on August 16, 2012 when a criminal investigation into attempted murder was launched against him under Section 1 of Article 119 of the Criminal Code.

According to HRW, Gazarian and other activists had traveled to a resort on the Black Sea that allegedly belongs to President Vladimir Putin to look into reports that a private marina was being built without public hearings or a required environmental-impact assessment:

Gazaryan told Human Rights Watch that the activists walked along the resort’s perimeter road, which is open to the public. He said he had walked ahead to get a better look at the construction. A security guard armed with a rubber truncheon approached on a motorized scooter. The guard grabbed Gazaryan, he said, twisting his arm behind his back and trying to take his phone. Two more security guards arrived.

Feeling threatened, Gazaryan said, he wrestled free, picked up a small rock, and told the guard to keep his distance. Gazaryan said he then turned around, dropped the rock, and walked away. The authorities allege that Gazaryan’s actions -- which they concede in the investigation files consisted only of picking up a rock and a verbal communication -- amounted to threatening to kill the security guard.

Gazarian was declared a fugitive by the Russian authorities in December after he failed to respond to a telegram ordering him to appear on November 13 at a police station to be questioned -- and most likely taken into custody. Gazarian says the telegram was delivered to an outdated address.

Gazarian fled Russia shortly after, saying he had "no faith" in the Russian justice system regarding his case. Gazarian's lawyer, Viktor Dutlov, told HRW that his client faced up to five years in prison.

HRW said the charges appeared designed to put Gazarian behind bars and silence him.

In January, according to the Ireland-based human rights organization Front Line Defenders, police officers -- including a man who introduced himself as "Major Petrov" -- visited Gazarian's wife and two small children at their Russian home:

When she refused to give any details of her husband's whereabouts, referring to Article 51 of the Russian Constitution ("No one shall be obliged to give evidence against his relatives"), Major Petrov threatened to search the residence, although no search warrant was presented. She was subsequently forced to provide a written declaration that she had not seen her husband since October 2012 and that she did not know his phone number in Estonia. Before leaving, Major Petrov left his phone number stating that he wished to speak to the human rights defender.

The Russian opposition's Coordinating Council has reported that as many as 70 political activists have fled Russia since the summer of 2012 out of fear of persecution or prosecution.

"I'm very happy that I was granted asylum. It means that the past six months I spent living here were not in vain," Gazarian told Estonian television. "Now my life will be easier. I have definite rights -- for example, the right to travel abroad. Now I can make long-term plans and think about work."

You can follow Gazarian, in Russian, on Twitter (@Suren_Gazaryan) or LiveJournal.

-- Grant Podelco

About This Blog

"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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