SOCHI, Russia (AP) — They are fearless, stubborn and increasingly under siege. Environmentalists, activists and journalists in Sochi have spent years exposing the dark side of Vladimir Putin's showcase Winter Games — and now they're paying the price.
In recent months, these campaigners have been detained, put on trial and even barred from going to the beach.
With the Olympics less than two months away, authorities are stepping up the pressure as these men and women refuse to back down in their fight to shed light on what they insist has been the destruction of the environment and a way of life.
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch called local authorities directly responsible for the campaign of harassment against activists in the Krasnodar region, which includes Sochi. Rights groups have lamented Russia's human rights record for years, but critics say the tactics in Sochi are extreme even by this country's notoriously overbearing standards.
"Authorities in the Krasnodar region are harassing the environmentalists and activists who dare to speak critically of them in the context of the preparations for the Olympics in Sochi," said Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. As the games approach, she said, "the pressure is increasing."
Anna Minkova, a spokeswoman for the Krasnodar government, said that authorities were "not aware of the instances of the harassment of civil activists" that the AP brought forward. She added that the activities of law enforcement agencies are not under the regional administration's authority. Local law enforcement agencies, which report to federal security bodies, declined repeated requests from AP to comment both on the overall alleged clampdown and specific claims of harassment.
Here are some of the local activists and journalists at the front lines of a struggle to reveal corruption and environmental damage in the run-up to Russia's $51 billion Winter Olympics:
SVETLANA KRAVCHENKO, JOURNALIST:
When Kravchenko visited the water company to demand answers about a supply cut in Sochi, she suddenly found herself surrounded by security guards.
The veteran reporter pushed her way out of the office and into the street, as the guards clutched at her clothes and tore off a sleeve. The next day, Kravchenko was charged with beating up one of the guards who had towered over her. A medical examination documented a 0.3 millimeter (microscopic) scratch on his ear. Six months later Kravchenko was found guilty and fined 10,000 rubles ($300).
Over the years, Kravchenko has documented environmental travesties in Sochi and the heavy-handed tactics of local officials as a reporter for the Caucasian Knot, a major Russian web publication that covers the region. She's been insulted and threatened before. But nothing prepared her for the shock of being put on trial for purportedly beating up a security guard. Kravchenko said the water supply episode was merely a pretext for authorities to "take revenge against a difficult journalist." The water company and Sochi judicial authorities did not return requests for comment.
"Any sane person would ask: How can you beat up a person using your hands and feet ... and he would only get a scratch inside his ear?" Kravchenko said. "It's a blatant lie."
SUREN GAZARYAN, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST:
For Gazaryan, a zoologist, it all started with a fence.
Gazaryan had been mobilizing his fellow activists to call attention to what he said was the property of Gov. Alexander Tkachev — popularly known by his nickname "Sanya" — situated in a national forest where construction is forbidden. Last year, he was found guilty of "deliberate destruction of property" and handed a three-year suspended prison sentence. The crime: spray-painting "Sanya is a thief" on the fence.
Gazaryan said it didn't matter that it was not him but his friends who had spray-painted the words. Prosecutors went after him and his comrade-in-arms Yevgeny Vitishko, another fierce critic of the games' environmental record. "They had to punish us," Gazaryan said.
After another outing to inspect what was rumored to be a secret mansion belonging to Putin, Gazazyan, already on probation, found himself facing charges of making death threats against a security guard. Two other guards were listed as witnesses. "There were those three bulky guys with truncheons," said Gazaryan, "and now they were saying I was threatening him."