Just a couple of days before the Winter Olympic Games start in Sochi, an activist was arrested. Sadly, such arrests are not unusual in Russia, but the timing of this particular arrest sent a chilling message across Russian civil society.
The environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko was planning on traveling to Sochi today but was stopped by police, convicted of “petty hooliganism” and sentenced to 15 days in administrative detention. His crime? According to Russian authorities he cursed while standing at a bus stop.
When I heard the news about Vitishko’s arrest I was in the middle of a conversation with Semyon Simonov. A lawyer for the human rights organization Memorial in Sochi, he defends the rights of migrant workers.
Many of the people involved in the construction of the Sochi Olympic stadiums and hotels have not been paid for their hard work. After the construction ended, many of them were pressured to leave Russia, while others were forcibly deported. Simonov spoke to members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) about four months ago about the violations of migrant workers’ rights and handed the IOC delegation a list with 700 names of people whose rights were seriously violated. Since then, Simonov has not been contacted by the IOC. Only a dozen of the people on the list have been paid.
Simonov also spoke about how hard is it to organize demonstrations in Sochi even outside the context of the Olympic Games.
“You ask [for] an approval for a demonstration (as required by Russian law), that is followed by an invitation to the mayor’s office, where the local authorities try to persuade you into calling off your event. If that does not work it quite often turns out that a local school is organizing a festivity or sports day on that specific date and time at that very location. Then a different location for the protest is proposed by the authorities. And it just happens to be a park on the outskirts of the town, where you can hardly be heard or seen by anyone.”
Instead of being in Sochi during the Winter Olympics, Vitishko will be spending the next 15 days in administrative detention and Sochi2014 has its first prisoner of conscience.
During these 15 days he cannot talk about the environmental damage caused by during the constructions of the Olympic infrastructure or other issues that don’t fit into Putin’s Olympic show. Vitishko’s case is another clear example of the harassment against civil society activism in the run-up to the Olympics. It’s a simple and horrifying message from the Russian authorities to the country’s civil society: If you don’t fall in line, you will be next.