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Environmentalist Flees Russia To Protect Children From Authorities


Yevgenia Chirikova is best known for a 2010 campaign to prevent a highway to St. Petersburg from being built through part of the Moscow region's Khimki Forest.

A leading Russian environmentalist says she has moved to Estonia to eliminate the possibility of her children being taken from her.

Yevgenia Chirikova told the Associated Press by telephone from Tallinn that it is "difficult" to work in Russia as an environmentalist because "they can come for you at any moment like they blackmailed me once with my children."

Chirikova said she will not seek political asylum in Estonia and will continue to visit Russia.

Chirikova, 38, is best known for a 2010 campaign to prevent a highway to St. Petersburg from being built through part of the Moscow region's Khimki Forest.

Chirikova's investigations showed that the $8 billion project was partly owned by a childhood friend of President Vladimir Putin.

She cited a visit by workers from Russia's Child Protection Service in 2011 in which she said they tried to intimidate her by suggesting they could remove her two daughters from her home, claiming they were being abused.

Chirikova said that although there are several reasons for her decision to leave Russia, moving to Estonia will "remove my chief vulnerable spot, my children."

She added that activists are persecuted in Russia, while she called Estonia a "free country" where the raiding and searching of an activist's home is "impossible."

Chirikova said she will be able to work more effectively on her public environmental projects from Estonia and will use the country's proximity to Russia to make frequent trips to her homeland when necessary.

She said that even if she is arrested while on a visit to Russia, it will not directly affect her children, who she says are in "a safe place."

Chirkova helped create the Defenders Of Khimki Forest group in 2010 to work against the highway project and initially had success halting the project as the government promised to do environmental-impact studies.

But after some brief government delays, the clearing of trees and the building of the toll road from Moscow to St. Petersburg resumed, and in December a portion of the road through the forest was opened.

Khimki activists say the road has damaged the Khimki environment and that further construction projects in the area -- spurred on by the building of the highway -- have done further damage.

Chirikova has been arrested several times and a number of Khimki activists and journalists -- including Aleksei Dmitriyev and Mikhail Beketov -- have been beaten and harrassed for their efforts to stop development within the Khimki Forest.

Chirikova -- who was given a Woman of Courage Award in 2011 by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco one year later -- also unsuccessfully ran for mayor of the town of Khimki in 2012, finishing a distant second.

Chirikova said she and some other Russian colleagues have set up the environmental website for environmental activists to report problems in Russia and to share experiences in trying to prevent the destruction of forests and other unspoiled areas.

She told RFE/RL in an interview on April 20 that without access to Russian TV or radio, the Internet is her "battlefield."

With reporting by AP and Interfax
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