Yesterday, a court in the city of Kolomna, Russia sentenced Viacheslav Yegorov to 15 months in prison for repeatedly taking part in peaceful protests in 2018 against the “import” of trash from Moscow. It is ironic that this sentence came less than a week after the UN Human Rights Council recognized the right to a healthy environment as a universal human right. I met Yegorov in Kolomna in 2019, when he was under house arrest. I was there to research the crackdown on grassroots environmental activists. Yegorov was energetic, optimistic, deeply concerned about the well-being of his fellow townspeople, and undeterred by the harassment unleashed against him. Whether it was because of his positive outlook or because the charges were so absurd and disproportionate, I never expected this story to end with him behind bars. Moscow generates enormous amounts of trash. In 2018, large-scale, centralized recycling programs didn’t exist, and many landfills in the Moscow region became overfilled, so regional authorities redistributed Moscow trash to other landfills in places like Kolomna. Activists there explained to us that these sites weren’t designed for so much trash, and that the sharp increase resulted in contamination of underground water and eruptions of toxic “landfill gases”. First, Kolomna activists filed complaints, but they didn’t get meaningful responses or results.
Then they started protests to stop what they described as an endless line of trash trucks pouring into their region. Despite the peaceful nature of the protests, activists faced violent police dispersals, detention, and harassment. With his prior experience in political activism, Yegorov became the protesters’ informal leader. Or at least that’s certainly how he was perceived by authorities when they singled him out. Authorities opened three administrative offences cases against Yegorov for unlawful protesting, and the fourth became the basis for the criminal case against him. Russian law allows for criminal prosecution for repeated violation of public assembly rules. Authorities closed the landfill in November 2019 but never dropped the case against Yegorov. Apparently, they want to send a message that those who dare stand up for their rights will pay a high price. Targeting and jailing peaceful activists like Yegorov risks only exacerbating, not burying, the problems they vocalize. Authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Yegorov, quashing the verdict against him.
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