MOSCOW – (AFP) – In August, a group of Russian environmentalists were walking along a beach on the Black Sea, just outside the walls surrounding a majestic palace that has been linked to President Vladimir Putin.
One of the activists, Suren Gazaryan, proceeded to take several photos of illegal yacht moorings built on the public shore, before a guard attacked him and tried to take away his phone.
Four months later, Gazaryan is living in Estonia. Instead of spending the holidays with his family and friends, he is waiting for the authorities there to review his application for political asylum.
If he goes back to Russia, he says he will be jailed by the officials whose illegal palaces he worked to expose. Two cases were brought against him, one of which ended in a hooliganism conviction and a suspended sentence.
Gazaryan is only one of several Russian activists who has quit the country after facing prosecution and possible jail time following Vladimir Putin’s reelection to an historic third term in May.
Several opposition activists are already in jail, others are facing multiple criminal probes. At least five activists are now outside the country for fear of being prosecuted over an anti-Putin rally on May 6 in Moscow, when police and protesters clashed.
Gazaryan, a 38-year-old zoologist and an internationally recognised expert in bats of Russia’s North Caucasus, had been involved for years in environmental protests with Krasnodar-based NGO Environmental Watch on North Caucasus, focusing on violations surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
He became a hero for Russia’s opposition movement after the group exposed illegal land seizures and luxurious villas along the Black Sea shore. One is believed to have been built for Putin, while documents suggest another belongs to Krasnodar region governor Alexander Tkachev, one of Putin’s staunchest regional allies.
In June, Gazaryan and fellow activist Evgeny Vitishko received a three-year suspended sentence for hooliganism for writing protest slogans on a fence illegally built around the Tkachev property in a public forest.
Human Rights Watch has denounced the charges against the activists. In a statement last week, it called on the Russian authorities to “end its blatant retaliation against government critics”.
So he knew the risks of a second criminal case after the guard from the “Putin palace” accused him of making death threats during the August beach altercation. A second conviction would turn a suspended sentence into a real one.
“I didn’t want to live through the humiliation again. And I didn’t want to go to jail,” he told AFP.
He has now been charged with making murder threats, and declared a fugitive. Two combined convictions could land him behind bars for five years.
“When a fabricated case is given a green light – that doesn’t leave much hope for justice,” he said.
His case is overseen by the Investigative Committee, the powerful security agency also in charge of the May 6 rally probe, which turned suddenly violent one day before Putin’s inauguration.
When police forced protesters into a bottleneck and chaos ensued, Anastasiya Rybachenko took a loud speaker and tried to reason with officers, asking them to release detainees.
The loud speaker was what singled her out of the panicking, angry crowd as it pushed against the police ranks, she now believes. When police searched her apartment as she was in Europe, she decided not to come back.
Her university expelled her after a police visit and she enrolled in a university in Tallinn.
Although she is not applying for asylum, Rybachenko, 21, said she is not coming back to Russia unless she is sure her case is investigated fairly.
“I am not coming back to go to prison,” she told AFP from Estonia. “But I am in school here to be useful for my country, and I see my future there.”
Last week, Rybachenko, who is a member of Solidarity opposition movement, was charged with participation in mass rioting, a crime that carries up to eight years in prison.
“Criminal probes are the language the regime is speaking with its people right now,” an editorial in Vedomosti daily said.
“It is saying: don’t be too confident, even better, leave the country, or we will imprison you.”
“Time is on our side: this regime is getting older and more decrepit. I will certainly outlive it,” Rybachenko said.
Gazaryan was less optimistic when asked when he could be going back home.
“Practically – maybe if Putin dies, or suddenly shows his mercy and our charges are dropped in the first case,” he said. “Both things are equally unlikely.”
“I am out of Russia for a long time,” he said.