Russia detains Caucasus activists ahead of Olympics

Olympic rings stand in front of the airport in Adler outside Sochi on November 30, 2013

Russian authorities on Saturday detained eight activists from the Caucasus who have been critical of the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and searched their homes, one of those detained said. "Right now they are telling us we are witnesses in some case," Ibragim Yaganov, one of the detainees waiting for investigators while under police custody in a hotel, told AFP. Police had told them they were looking for an extremist suspected of hiding in one of their homes, but Yaganov, who heads a Circassian NGO called Khase, said that seemed to be a pretext. The eight were apprehended in their homes in the North Caucasus regions of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Adygea. They were transported hundreds of kilometres away to Krasnodar, the main city of the region hosting the Sochi Games. The group was eventually allowed to leave after waiting for hours and told to return for formal questioning next week. All of them are respected public figures and are Circassians, an ethnic group native to the Sochi area that believes the Olympics should not be held there and views preparations for the event as too destructive. Yaganov said all of the eight had been critical of the Sochi Olympics but had never engaged in illegal actions. He believed the arrests were an effort to intimidate them. "We think it's connected to the Olympics. They are trying to ensure security like this, only security from the wrong people," he told AFP. Circassians populated the Black Sea coast and mountains above Sochi until they were driven out by tsarist troops in the late 19th century after the end of the Caucasus War, which some have labelled genocide. Yaganov reiterated the Circassian complaints over the upcoming Olympics, claiming corruption, environmental damage, and destruction of various heritage sites like Circassian ancestral graves. "All of this will be catastrophic, not just for Circassians but for all Russia," he said. Russia has mounted impressive security measures ahead of the sports event, to be held between February 7 and 23 in the Black Sea resort city, including visits to homes of Krasnodar activists to warn them against staging any protests. The preparations have locals up in arms over construction pollution and constant power outages. However local people have little chance to express their frustrations, said Sochi-based blogger Alexander Valov, who was accused of organising an illegal protest Saturday. Valov snapped a picture Friday of a flyer in the city inviting people to picket the Sochi city hall and posting it on a collective blog he runs. He was summoned to the police the next day and blamed for organising the unsanctioned gathering. "I have nothing to do with it, I just took a picture," he told AFP, though he added that he was also frustrated. He is due to appear in court Sunday and could be fined. "They told us everything will improve with the Olympics, but everything has gotten worse. There is no electricity for days, even on the new highways they built." Olympic rings stand in front of the airport in Adler outside Sochi on November 30, 2013