TUAPSE, Krasnodar, Russia, March 1, 2011 (ENS) – Four activists from the group Environmental Watch on North Caucasus, EWNC, were sentenced to jail by a judge in the town of Tuapse on Monday after participating in a protest Sunday in a public forest on the Black Sea coast.

Police closed in as the group of 19 people were performing what they called “an environmental inspection” of an elite residence, or dacha, on the Black Sea coast. They were near the vacation home built on public forest land for Krasnodar region Governor Alexander Tkachev, according to the environmental group.

The Krasnodar region lies along Russia’s Black Sea coast and its major city Sochi will host the Olympic Winter Games in 2014.

The governor’s residence in the Blue Bay near the village of Dzhubga is surrounded by a fence, which is against Russia’s Forest Code, the activists say. The fence also blocks passage to the shore, which they say is against the Water Code.

The activists say their inspection also uncovered logging of endangered Pitsunda pine trees, which is a criminal offense.

A member of Environmental Watch on North Caucusus is surrounded by police. (Image courtesy EWNC)

Nineteen people were rounded up by police although the activists say they were on public land and were behaving lawfully. “Police used violence against activists, beating them in the stomach, twisting their arms and attempting to tear their nostrils,” the environmental group said.

Any Russian citizen is allowed to be on public forest land, according to Article 11 of Russia’s Forest Code.

However, police arrested the protesters and took them to the local police station in the village of Dzhubga. Most were released with no explanation after four hours, but five were detained.

During their detainment, several activists, including EWNC’s Dmitry Shevchenko and Suren Gazaryan, were handcuffed and physically hurt, the group said.

“The dacha of Governor Tkachev is yet another project that abuses the rights of Russian citizens to freely access Russian forests and the Black Sea,” the group said.

During the trial Monday, Judge Maksim Dubov chose not to view video and photo evidence that activists were “practically ambushed by the police,” the group complained. Gazaryan, Shevchenko and Zufar Achilov were jailed for seven days and Evgeny Vitishko for 10 days.

EWNC said today that Shevchenko, who is kept in the cell together with Gazaryan and Achilov, has declared a hunger strike against “the joke of a trial.”

“Although the formal charge used by the prosecution was ‘resisting police demands,’ we believe that this charge was used as a simple pretext to punish activists for protesting, making them de-facto political prisoners,” said EWNC.

The judge’s decision was appealed Monday by the four activists. According to Russian law, the appeal should have been heard within 24 hours but it was pushed back to Wednesday.

While there are no public documents linking the vacation home construction to Governor Tkachev, locals call it the “Tkachev dacha.”

Activists from the same group were briefly detained further up the Black Sea coast earlier this month as they were investigating a different lavish vacation home that has been linked to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.