SOCHI, Russia — A court in southern Russia sentenced an outspoken environmental activist to three years in a penal colony on Wednesday in a move that drew stark contrasts with the sun-drenched and largely festive Winter Olympic spirit that’s stirring this seaside resort.
Yevgeny Vitishko, a member of the Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC), was denied his appeal after the court in Krasnodar, around 100 miles north of Sochi, ruled that he’d violated the terms of a suspended sentence he received in 2012 for alleged property damage.
That conviction was for spray-painting a fence around what he and other activists alleged was the regional governor’s summer home.
Supporters say the case against Vitishko — who has campaigned against the environmental damage his group says was caused by Olympic construction in Sochi — is politically motivated.
Vitishko and the EWNC have experienced numerous run-ins with the law while reporting on the negative effects of construction in the region, which critics say has irreversibly spoiled much of its nature.
A handful of other EWNC activists have also been detained in the past.
Yulia Gorbunova, a Russia researcher for Human Rights Watch, says Vitishko’s sentence was “no coincidence.”
“It is hard to avoid concluding that local authorities were trying to get this outspoken critic out of the way in the final lead-up to the games and also to silence him as his appeal neared,” she said in a press release Wednesday.
Russian officials, meanwhile, have claimed that far from damaging the region’s environment, Olympic construction has improved it.
It’s unlikely that Vitishko’s sentencing will affect the largely positive mood of the Winter Olympics here, where a barrage of international criticism in the lead-up to the games has given way to a more cheerful atmosphere that’s eclipsed fears about security and human rights.
The hordes of foreign visitors who have descended on Sochi have instead found a tranquil, seaside haven, where President Vladimir Putin’s $50 billion effort to put Russia’s best face forward appears to have paid off.
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On Wednesday, hours after Vitishko’s sentencing, central Sochi predictably remained a vibrant hub of activity, where locals enjoyed ice cream cones in springtime weather and curious foreign tourists stood amused by the palm trees.
Fifty-year-old Oleg Petrov, a visitor from Moscow for the games, said he’d never heard of Vitishko and dismisses suggestions that human rights issues have cast a pall over the games.
“If there were actually something fishy there, I’m sure we’ll read about it on blogs,” he said, relaxing on a park bench. “There are informed people out there who follow all that stuff.”
For now, Petrov sees few reasons to worry.
“The main thing is to hold the Olympics calmly and peacefully, so the people can get their satisfaction.”