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Police arrest activist holding protest in Sochi

SOCHI, Russia - Police arrested an activist who was holding a solo protest in central Sochi Monday, saying that the man did not have permission to hold a demonstration in public.

The activist, David Khakim, was protesting the three-year prison sentence handed down last week to Yevgeny Vitishko, an environmentalist who had been critical of preparations for the Sochi Winter Olympics.

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Khakim was sentenced to 30 days community service in a hearing that was closed to the public and the media, which the judge explained as a necessary measure for security, according to his lawyer, Alexander Popkov.

Russian authorities have cracked down on protests surrounding construction of venues for the Olympics, which was personally overseen by President Vladimir Putin. Putin in January reversed a ban on protests in Sochi during the Olympics, but city authorities set aside a small park far from Olympic venues for legal demonstrations. To date, only two solo protests have been held; another rally planned for last Sunday was cancelled after organizers and Sochi’s mayor agreed to talk out their differences behind closed doors.

Activist groups have said authorities ignored laws regarding public hearings on construction projects, violated the rights of residents, and damaged the environment in their construction of the Olympic Park, Olympic village, and the many residences and hotels for visitors, athletes’ families and media. Rights organizations say that Russian activists protesting the Olympics have been unfairly rounded up on trumped-up charges.

Khakim stood in Sochi’s central square, facing the city administration building with a sign that read “Free Yevgeny Vitishko, Ecological Prisoner,” and included a drawing of the Olympic Rings made of red barbed wire. Police approached Khakim a few minutes after he began his protest, and demanded that he leave the square. When he refused, a police captain told Khakim that he had violated the law and faced a fine of between $600 and $900.

Khakim argued that the rule limiting protest to one park violated a federal law that allows a single person to protest in public without official approval. But the police took Khakim into custody, and by Monday evening he had been sentenced.

Popkov said he would appeal Khakim’s sentence, and said the arrest was illegal because it violated Russian laws on freedom of expression.

“The president’s decree cannot contradict the Constitution,” Popkov said.

Vitishko was arrested two years ago on charges that he had spray-painted an insult on a fence in an area where construction is prohibited. He was given a suspended sentence, but early this month was arrested and charged with swearing at a bus stop. Soon thereafter a judge changed the suspended sentence to three years in a prison colony.

The Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus group said Vitishkot has been on a hunger strike for four days and is complaining about poor jail conditions.

David Khakim was detained Monday in Sochi.

David Filipov/Globe Staff

David Khakim was detained Monday in Sochi.

Eduard Nazarski, a representative of Amnesty International, was at Khakim’s protest and witnessed the detention. He said he planned to address the International Olympic Committee Tuesday about the need to pay closer attention to human rights violations, in particular against people who have spoken up about the preparations for the Olympics.

“These people are critical of the Olympics, and authorities do not want criticism, so they are arrested,” Nazarski said.

Also Monday, an Italian gay-rights activist said she was detained by police at the Olympics after being stopped while carrying a rainbow flag that read in Russian: ‘‘Gay is OK,’’ the Associated Press reported. Police on Monday denied this happened.

Vladimir Luxuria, a former Communist lawmaker in the Italian parliament who has become a prominent transgender rights crusader and television personality, told The Associated Press she was held for several hours before she was released. She said she was not charged.

‘The problem was not a rainbow flag, the problem was the writing,’’ the agency quoted her as saying. ‘‘They asked me not to show things like that anymore.’’

David Filipov can be reached at David.Filipov@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov.
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