Russia: Guardian of Khanty sacred lake facing prison for defending himself against stray dogs brought in by oil workers
In West Siberia’s Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District, an indigenous Khanty elder, who is the keeper of the sacred lake Imlor, is facing up to two years behind bars after defending himself and his reindeer against stray dogs which had been illegally brought into the area by oil workers. Criminal charges against Sergey Vasilyevich Kechimov were filed 13 January 2015 with the Magistrates Court of Surgut district. The members of Aborigen Forum, an informal coalition of indigenous rights activists, are appealing to the public prosecutor review the charges, pointing to numerous violations by the law enforcement agencies.
On the Territory of Traditional Nature Use (TTNU) of Sergey Kechimov, the oil company OJSC "Surgutneftegas" is operating drilling wells extracting oil from the Sarymo-Russkinskoye oil field. In September 2014 on the territory of the TTNU dogs attacked Kechimov and his domestic reindeer, grazing on the pasture. Defending his life and the lives of his reindeer, Kechimov was forced to shoot the dogs.
According to the laws of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, it is forbidden to keep dogs in the oil fields; stray dogs and cats, poaching in hunting areas, are to be killed. Kechimov, a Khanty by nationality, resides in the Territory of Traditional Nature Use (TTNU) No. 6-R of Surgut district, leading the traditional way of life of indigenous peoples of the North. He speaks the Khanty language, his command of spoken Russian is very limited and he is illiterate in Russian. As per the indictment, two employees of OJSC "Surgutneftegas" have charged him with threatening their lives. They claim that Kechimov had pointed a gun in their direction and threatened to kill them. Kechimov himself contends that he killed a dog and then left the drilling site, he insists that he did not threaten the employees of the company and that the accusations against him are made up.
Soon thereafter, he was visited by the police who, without explaining the charges to him, and without an interpreter, thus in violation of the law, recorded Kechimov’s testimony and asked him to sign some papers. Kechimov trusting the authorities, complied. It turned out that what he had signed was a confession to actions which he had not perpetrated.. The signatories of the appeal draw attention to violations of the procedural norms. Interrogations of Kechimov had been held without a lawyer and an interpreter. The indictment in Khanty language was presented to Kechimov only during the court hearing on 08 June 2015, i.e. nine months after the alleged incident.
The signatories ask the public Prosecutor to conduct a thorough review of the case and to report the results to the public. Sergey Kechimov, a descendant of shamans and a keeper and sustainer of Khanty traditional knowledge, has spent a lifetime on the shore of the sacred lake Imlor with his family and reindeer. The lake is a place of worship for the Surgut Khanty. Now, the lake is surrounded by numerous oil wells of Surgutneftegaz, the so-called "bushes". Pasture is almost gone, which is why many Khanty have moved away to the villages. Kechimov’s home is the last inhabited Khanty house on the lake.
Local residents reported that the incident had not been the first clash between Kechimov and employees of the oil industry, which had chased him away rudely, when he had come to talk to them about their poaching, about pollution, about domestic reindeer deer killed by their dogs and about compensation. The attack by a dog had occurred only three days before on the court hearing.
The last guardian of the sacred lake
The Khanty believe that the case against Kechimov had been launched because his presence interferes with the oil company doing with the lake as they please. Local activists have long sought for lake official protected status for the lake, and this issue had been discussed in the government of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous district. But the process of awarding protected status was stalled after the Governor was personally had been approached by the head of Surgutneftegaz. He proposed his own plan for the conservation of lake – to single out a few isolated ceremonial places, whose protection would not impede the expansion of the oil extraction.
Local activists believe that if Sergey Kechomov will be sentenced, the sacred lake, left without its last defender, will perish, and he will not survive prison. At the beginning of the last century researcher K. F. Karjalainen wrote: "If "Sorni Nai" - the Keeper of the sacred lake Imlor, goes, then so will the small people disappear, whom it protects, as a shepherd keeps and protects his reindeer".