Russian environmentalists have reacted angrily to jail sentences of between three and five-and-a-half years imposed on four nature reserve workers in Kamchatka, in the Russian Far East.
The four protest their innocence of embezzling funds from the Kronotsky nature reserve, in a case where the prosecution’s motives are hard to discern.
Mediazona, a human rights defenders’ site, reported that charges were brought against the four in 2018, after the director of a firm contracted to work for the reserve, himself implicated in criminal corruption, pointed the finger at them. That version of events was supported by a video posted anonymously on Youtube.
Pyotr Shpilenok, director of the Kronotsky reserve, and Greenpeace, “also connected the harassment of the ecologists with the fact that they had spoken out against a lake being excluded from the reserve, to be used for commercial purposes”, Mediazona said.
In 2019, the Insider, an opposition media site, reported that the intimidation campaign may have been connected with plans, about which the staff had doubts, to turn over fishing rights on the Kronotsky river to Rockwell Capital, an investment firm.
Rockwell’s founder Gleb Frank is the son-in-law of Gennady Timchenko, an oil trader and close friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin, and son of former Russian transport minister Sergei Frank, the Insider noted.
No-one knows for sure why the staff of the nature reserve, who vehemently protest their innocence, have had their lives wrecked by these cruel sentences.
Greenpeace Russia strongly disagrees with the charges against the nature reserve employees.
On 15 July, the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsk City Court found employees of the Kronotsky Nature Reserve guilty of embezzlement in the amount of  million rubles [approx. 7.9 million euros]. The money had been allocated from the federal budget to eliminate accumulated environmental damage.
Darya Panicheva, head of the reserve’s scientific department, was sentenced to four years and six months in prison. The court sentenced Roman Korchigin, deputy director for science and educational tourism, to five years in prison. Oksana Terekhova, deputy director for financial and legal support, was sentenced to five years and six months in prison. Nikolai Pozdnyakov, a former employee of the reserve, was also convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. All of them were taken into police custody in the courtroom.
The court also sentenced all the convicted persons to compensate in full the financial damage indicated in the charges, and to pay large fines.
None of the reserve employees of the reserve has admitted any wrongdoing. The defence will petition a higher court to review the verdict, seeking to have the charges completely dropped and obtain an acquittal.
The director of the Kronotsky Reserve, Pyotr Shpilenok, commented on the court’s decision.
“I’m in shock,” he said. “Innocent employees have been taken into custody for doing their official duties. We will continue to fight on their behalf — otherwise we wouldn’t know how to go on living and working. There is now only one recourse for us — to go to higher courts and seek the complete dismissal of charges against them.
“In addition, the reserve is now literally in a state of emergency: it won’t be able to function as before without these key employees. The specialists sent to prison were responsible for the most important areas of work: science, tourism, and economic support. Kronotsky will now have to urgently make some difficult decisions to keep nature protected.”
The Kronotsky Reserve employees were charged with embezzling more than 454 million rubles from the federal budget and being involved in an organised criminal group. The money was earmarked for and spent on cleaning up the reserve and eliminating accumulated environmental damage.
The Investigative Committee, however, believes that this money was stolen. On June 27, the prosecution requested that the court sentence the accused reserve employees to six to eight years of imprisonment, multimillion-ruble fines, and overall damages of 454.6 million rubles.
The charges caused a massive public outcry, and the trial came to be called the “Clean-Up Case.” The team at the Kronotsky Reserve publicly posted materials that testify to the innocence of the reserve’s employees: paperwork, photos and video footage, witness statements, and official findings by scientific institutions, Rosprirodnadzor, and the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources. They clearly show that there are many discrepancies in the case.
“I personally know the accused reserve employees and can confirm that they are some of the best and most dedicated specialists in the reserve system,” says Mikhail Kreindlin, project manager for specially protected natural areas at Greenpeace Russia.
“Basically, the employees are accused of conscientiously and competently performing their work in assessing the damage caused to the reserve earlier, while the investigation is trying to prove the existence of an organised criminal group by pointing to the organisational structure of the institution that manages the reserve.”
Greenpeace Russia considers the sentence imposed on the employees of the Kronotsky Reserve unfair. Over years of cooperation, the reserve employees have proven themselves to be exceptionally honest and professional people, dedicated to their work. 20 July 2022
□ For news and views of the other Russias, I recommend The Russian Reader, where this statement was first published in English