Environmental camp against clear cutting of Moscow forest disbanded by unknown masked youths

Publish date: July 27, 2010

MOSCOW – In another violent attempt to deter environmentalists from opposing the deforestation in the Moscow region to build a toll highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, a group of environmentalists and two journalists camping in the capital’s Khimki forest was attacked and beaten on Friday by a gang of several dozen people wearing white masks, activists report.

A number of the activists were injured, and to the surprise of the environmentalists, man of the activists were detained by police who were summoned to the site of the skirmish. The deforestation project, meanwhile, continues.  

The unknown group in the white masks appeared at the camp of environmentalist trying to save the Khimki forest, which is located in Moscow’s northwest near Shermetevo Airport, at about 5 am Friday.

At issue is the building of an $ 8 billion high speed toll highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, which is cutting directly through swathes of some of the Moscow regions most remarkable forestlands. The project has become a flashpoint of controversy between officialdom, which supports the building of the highway, and environmental activists and some members of the independent press who do not.

Environmentalists say the highway can be built to bypass the old oak forest.

The official antagonisms have deep roots. In Novemeber 2008, Mikhail Beketov, editor-in-chief of the regional Khimskaya Prada newspaper, was savagely beaten in front of his home. His newspaper had taken a strong editorial stance against the building of the highway through the Khimki Forest. As a result of his injuries one of his legs was amputated, and head traumas he suffered during the attack have left him unable to speak.

Current reports on his condition indicate that his second leg may have to be amputated. A fund to help him with his medical bills has been established in a Russian bank by his supporters.

Yet this most recent incident of harassment of environmentalists and reports covering the Khimki project has led to murky contradictions issued by police and other officials, and events are still developing. 

The activists’ accounting of events

The activists accosted Friday had occupied the camp for a week in an attempt to stop the clear cutting activities, which they say are being carried out without the necessary permission documentation to do so. Activists have used blockades on the train lines leading to the logging site and others patrolled areas adjacent to the cutting.

According to Alla Chernishyova, a member of the group In Defence of the Khimki Forest,  “A squad of about 50 strong youths, who looked like ultra- right wing football hooligans, were noticed by the activists at the very last moment,” she told Novaya Gazeta, Russia independent weekly.  

The youths were dressed in shorts, jerseys, sneakers, their faces wrapped in the same white t-shirts with the number 19 on them.

“They surronded the camp, turned on a PA, and said ‘we have come to clean up and beat up,’” recounted Chernishyova. “A terrible fight ensued. They injured the arm of one women and the neck of another. activist.” Chernishyova said the activists had nonetheless temporarily managed to halt the deforestation. “Together, we went to them (the hooligans), told them we had called the police, and demanded their credentials, which they did not have.”  

But when police showed up at the camp and the thugs scattered, officers begn rounding up the activists instead. In all, 15 people, including Yelena Chirikova, head of the Defence of the Khimki Forest Movement were delivered to a local police precinct, according to the Moscow Times.

According to the leader of the Left Front movement, police detained dozens of other activists at the site of the camp at noon the same day. Among them was the leader of the Movement to Defend the Khimki Forest, and other ecologists. Police further have insisted in radio interviews that the masked youths had caused no harm, and that the activists had started trouble that led to arrests.

“When the police arrived, the men had already reached our camp and were threatening to beat us,” Yevgenia Chirikova, the leader of the activists who was among those detained, told the Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “I explained that I was the mother of two young children, that I feared for my life and my safety, that dozens of people came here, and I was afraid they would hurt me.”

She said she tried to force the police to deal with the masked men, but they refused.

“I asked the police officers to stay and check their documents, but they refused and tried to leave,” she said.

All activists were released without charge on Sunday, the Associated Press reported.

Teplotekhnika, the company carrying out the clear cutting, told Chirikova that involved activists should be expecting lawsuits, she said in remarks on Ekho Moskvy, an independent national radio station.

“I would call this entire mess a shame for Russia,” Chirikova said on Ekho Moskvy. She went on to say that the movement to save the forest has the support of several high profile individuals, including Duma members and rock stars.

Second attempt by activists to stave off loggers

It was the second clash between the police and environmentalists, who managed to briefly chase away loggers when the deforestation started July 14.

The environmentalists attempted to stage a rally near the White House in downtown Moscow on Thursday, filing a petition with the government and seeking to present Prime Minster Vladimir Putin with timber from the newly felled trees.

But the rally, which had gathered about 50 people, ended up with several activists being dragged off to the local police station.

Yury Shevchuk, the rock star who openly confronted Putin about a lack of civil freedoms in Russia in May, traveled from St. Petersburg to Moscow on Friday to support the activists but did not take part in Friday’s clashes.

“I have come to at least provide some moral support for the guys, to meet them, to understand what is going on and figure out how I can help,” Shevchuk told Ekho Moskvy radio on Sunday.

Police deny activists’ reports

At the same time, an official letter from Russia’s law enforcement body, the State Department of Interior Affairs – GUVD in it’s Russian abbreviation –  was sent to the editorial offices of the Russian news website concerning the detention of the Khimki activists. The letter essentially contradicted the activists flat out.

The letter read in part that “The  GUVD of the Moscow Region is officially informing you that on July 23 at about 4:55 am, the duty officer of the Khimki Region Department of Internal Affairs received a telephone call from an anonymous man saying that in the tent city of the Defence of the Khimki Forest Movement members, masked people were carrying out illegal activities against them. A unit of officers were dispatched from the separate company of the regiment of the patrol sentry of police department. No disturbance of the peace was found. However, when the police squad advanced to the police station, about 10 people laid down in front of the wheels of the patrol cars, stopping the unit’s movement. Officers attempted to explain to the citizens the illegality of their actions, but the latter did not react to the legal demands of the officers. Aside from that, several dozen “ecologists” where interfering with the work of builders, having blocked off building equipment. Members of one of the security teams protecting the building project were unable to repel the citizens from the equipment. As a result of this, reinforcement police were quickly dispatched to the site of the incident.”

Press kicks into high gear against authorities

After the series of arrests, editor-in-chief, Lyudmila Telen, of RFE/RL sent the letter to Russia’s human right’s ombudsman Vladimir Lukin regarding the unlawful detention of RFE/RL photo journalist Yury Timofeyev – one of the two reporters at the Khimki camp – while fulfilling his professional duties. Representatives of Russia’s Ministry of Foregin Affairs approached the Khimki police about Timofeyev’s detention.

Russian environmentalists appealed to President Dmitry Medvedev. In a letter, they requested that the president “get involved in the situation and urgently issue a directive halting work on the high speed toll hghway between Moscow and St. Petersburg running through the Khimki forest, and to return to discussions and acceptable alternatives for the highway’s route.

The signatories of the letter to Medvedev call the clear cutting in Khimki for the construction of the highway “a gross violation of the rights enshrined in the Constitution of Khimki residents to a clean environment.” The letter continues to say that “According to RFE/RL ‘there are still a few people left in the first camp of ecologists that was quashed on July 15. The clear cutting remains at a standstill there.

The situation at Khimki

Activists have been watching two specific zones of activity. In the second camp set up where the activists had on July 21 found a recently made clearing, only the improvised “caltrops” (“hedgehogs”) had been left by the activists, made apparently to serve as a road block and built symbolically from branches that ecologists insist the loggers had cut off in absence of any felling permits.

Clear cutting is proceeding in the third zone, along the villages of the Klyazma river, where the activists and reporters were arrested last Friday. Activists say the area is guarded by two cordons of police who will not let anyone into the area where the clear cutting is taking place.  

The Russian Union of Journalists has also issued its protest of the arrests of RFE/RL’s Timofeyev and Yelena Kostyuchenko of Novaya Gazeta, who was sent by her editors to cover the Khimki forest protests, RIA Novosti reported. Novaya Gazeta is one of Russia’s last remaining independent newspapers.
Meanwhile, Deputy spokesman for the Interior Ministry of Moscow Yevgeny Gildeyev told Ekho Moskvy would not confirm that an attack on the activists had taken place.

“Such announcements assign the event too much significance,” he said. “ For example, today’s (Friday’s) first announcement said that around 100 people in masks attacked the tent city and that there was a huge brawl.”

Gildeyev went on to say that he could confirm that a call had come in to police at 5:00 am Friday saying that masked men were indeed in the proximity of the activists’ camp, but that responding officers found only about 25 to 30 people wearing white masks.

But, “according to reporters from Novaya Gazeta who were on the scene, these people were not behaving in an aggressive manner,” Gildeyev told Ekho Moskvy. Novaya Gazeta could not be reached by press time to confirm Gildeyev’s accounting. He continued to say that, “(the masked men) weren’t letting the activists near the logging equipment, but they did this without the application of force by forming a ‘human shield.’” He then repeated reports that the activists had surrounded police patrol cars, which occasioned their arrest.

Gilddeyev also said that the Khimki division of the police’s economic crimes unit were conducting their own investigation into the clear cutting in the Khimki Forest to make way for the highway, saying that “at present, the economic crimes unit has received documentation granting permission for the construction work to be carried out.”

Andrei Zhuravlev, acting general director of the State offices of Roads of Russia told Ecko Moskvy that road construction and clear cutting was taking place all over the Moscow Region, but without such vociferous protest.  

Inzhservis, the company that was doing the logging work in the Khimki forest, was even taken off the project Wednesday because it failed to meet its deadline, said the paper.  Inzhservis is a subcontractor employed by Teplotekhnik, which got a government contract to clear the forest.

Alexander Semchenko, CEO of Teplotekhnik, told the Moscow Times Thursday that the new logging contractor is Lestorg, which will do its job using machinery, not loggers with chainsaws.

Charles Digges contributed reporting to this article.

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