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Olympics-IOC seeks clarification after environmentalist convicted

Source: Reuters - Thu, 13 Feb 2014 13:01 GMT
Author: Reuters
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By Karolos Grohmann

SOCHI, Russia, Feb 13 (Reuters) - The International Olympic Committee asked the Russian organisers of the Sochi Winter Games on Thursday for more details about the jailing of an environmental campaigner, which his supporters say was politically motivated.

Yevgeny Vitishko, who has protested against harm done to the environment by Olympic construction work, lost an appeal against his three-year jail sentence on Wednesday on charges of damaging the property of the local Krasnodar region's governor.

The court's decision put the spotlight on concerns about the independence of the judiciary under President Vladimir Putin, who has staked his personal and political prestige on the Games and denies interfering with court decisions.

"Given the latest developments yesterday we have asked Sochi for further clarification," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said.

"I understand, and I will wait for the clarification, that Mr Vitishko broke his parole on a matter not related to the Olympic Games."

He added: "In other words, I think he vandalised or painted the governor of Krasnodar's house and was on a suspended sentence. My understanding is that that was broken."

Vitishko initially received a suspended sentence in 2012 for "deliberate destruction of property" after spray-painting the word "thief" on the fence of the residence of the pro-Kremlin governor of Krasnodar region, Alexander Tkachyov.

Vitishko, who will be taken to a penal colony, has denied the charges and said the governor's residence was in a national forest where construction was not supposed to be permitted.

"In the case of Mr Vitishko, we have followed and raised this case in the past for information to Sochi," Adams said.

"Where we think there may or may not be a case which could relate to the Games we raise it with Sochi, and Sochi then ask the appropriate authorities to come back to us with an explanation, so we have followed this one before."

COMPLAINTS DOGGED SOCHI PREPARATIONS

Accusations of environmental damage during the building of the venues for the Winter Olympics have been aimed at the organisers since Russia was awarded the Games in 2007.

The organisers have said that three trees have been planted for every one cut down but the mountain venues at the Krasnaya Polyana have largely been built from scratch in an area that had very limited winter sports tourism prior to the Games.

The Kremlin says courts are independent in Russia and that there are no political prisoners in the country, despite accusations by critics that Putin has clamped down on opponents since starting his third term as president in 2012.

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog, said on Wednesday the case against Vitishko was politically motivated and his group, Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, says it has been subjected to pressure for years.

"We were expecting such an outcome. We didn't really have any illusions about it," Vladimir Kimayev, a member of Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, said of Wednesday's court decision.

"This is not the first case in the last seven years. There is a system, a system of putting pressure on the members of Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus," he told Reuters television.

Kimayev said the local authorities in Sochi had also rejected an application by the group to hold a protest on Sunday, despite calls for dialogue by Putin.

A spokesman for the city authorities said the application had been rejected because it was not filed properly. Applications to stage protests have to be sent at least 10 days before the rally is planned. (Additional reporting by Kazbek Basayev and Piotr Pilat, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Tom Heneghan)

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