Saturday, January 20, 2018

Russian environmental activist beaten after attempting to document pollution in Pervouralsk

A Russian environmental activist was recently beaten in the heavily polluted city of Pervouralsk, just west of Yekaterinburg, after he attempted to document pollution at a nearby chromium plant, and three men attacked him.

Stepan Chernogubov was beaten unconscious, his skull fractured and had three teeth knocked out as he attempted to document pollution streaming from a local plant that occasionally turns a marsh feeding the Chusovaya River a dark red color, next to a bright green waste pond, The Japan Times reports.

Chernogubov, who was still bleeding, was taken by criminal investigators to the police station, where they questioned him for hours and then threatened to bring charges against him, though they have not done so. Chernogubov said at least two of his attackers turned out to be plainclothes police officers.

Environmental activism in Russia has proven to be a high-risk cause that attracts attention. Forest advocate Suren Gazaryan was thrown in jail for criticizing a governor and has now fled the country, and in 2008, Mikhail Beketov, an editor who campaigned against a highway project through a Moscow forest, was beaten, suffered brain damage and recently died. In May, three activists were hospitalized after private security guards set upon them for organizing against the opening of a lead and nickel mine, according to The Japan Times.

Russia requires no environmental impact statements on new development projects, and the legal system has proven unreliable, consistently serving those in power over environmental interests, leaving protests and other risky forms of personal demonstration to environmentalists.

Chernogubov had received a tip from a government worker that a discharge was scheduled at the chromium plant. He had recently begun volunteering for an organization run by Yekaterinburg lawyer Vassily Rybakov to monitor the government of the Ural industrial city.

"It's like a little kingdom out there," Rybakov said, The Japan Times reports. "When you go there, it's like returning to the 1990s - gangsters, crooks, rackets."

Chernogubov had been warned already once, when he posted a blog entry on pollution at the plant. He was contacted by an aide to Pervouralsk Mayor Yuri Pereversev who asked him to take down the post.

When investigators searched Chernogubov's apartment they found a Cossack uniform and an academic history of the Third Reich, as well as cartoons about Muslim migrants. Chernogubov was told that he could be charged with extremism and inciting national hatred, according to The Japan Times.

Chernogubov said he is not a neo-Nazi but that he is proud of his roots, as his family settled in Pervouralsk in the early 18th century to work at one of Russia's first iron smelters. They were of a persecuted sect called Old Believers and were fleeing from the official hostility they faced in Western Russia.

Chernogubov and Anatoly Grishin, his primary attacker, have both filed criminal complaints against each other. The prosecutor's office said the file has been left open due to insufficient reason to move forward. The other two men in the fight have been exonerated, The Japan Times reports.

Russian Chrome 1915 emerged from bankruptcy several years ago. It is now controlled by a holding company registered in Cyprus. Rybakov said that while production is down and the workforce has been slashed, but the site includes seven million tons of unprocessed chromium waste. The company maintains that the waste is the government's responsibility.

The day after Chernogubov's beating, Greenpeace activist Rashin Alimov came from St. Petersburg to conduct soil testing around the plant. On the organization's website, he noted findings of chromium pollution levels nearly 100 times the accepted maximum. He said a large pipe factory, upstream on the Chusovaya, may also be polluting the river, according to The Japan Times.