Russian investigators press piracy charges against all aboard the Arctic Sunrise


Publish date: October 3, 2013

Written by: Charles Digges

MURMANSK –Murmansk’s Lenin District Court closed out another day of marathon hearings by charging with piracy all remaining activists, journalists and crew members representing 18 nationalities who were aboard Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise vessel when, two weeks ago, it was boarded by Russian security service during a protest against an arctic oil rig in the Pechora Sea, investigators and Greenpeace have confirmed.

“All 30 participants in the criminal case have been charged over the attack on the Prirazlomnaya platform,” Russia’s Investigative Committee said in a statement. “They are all charged with…piracy committed by an organized group.”

The Lenin District Court last week ordered two months of pretrial detention for the crew members pending an investigation into their protest on the Prirazlomnoye oil platform owned by energy giant Gazprom. Despite numerous delays caused by the poor shape of the Prirazlomnoye rig, Gazprom insists it will begin production in the Pechora Sea by the end of the year.

Two activists from the Arctic Sunrise tried to hang a banner from the Prirazlomnoye, Russia’s first offshore rig in the Arctic, but were stopped when 15 members of  Russian security services abseiled from a helicopter and seized the ship at gunpoint on September 19.

In total, six of the charged activists are British, four are Russian, two each come from Argentina, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

The Artic Sunrise’s captain, Peter Willcox, is an American and others charged come from Australia, Italy, Brazil, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Ukraine, Turkey, Sweden, Poland and France,

That the entire group aboard the ship would be charged with such a grave a crime comes as a surprise less than a week after President Vladimir Putin, speaking at the Salekhard oil conference, told reporters he did not think the activists were guilty of piracy – a remark largely seen as a signal to courts and investigators to turn down the heat. The Arctic Sunrise had also staged a nearly identical protest at the oil rig in August with no repurcussions.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in the past seen as Putin’s kinder, more liberal side, however, was not as forgiving in remarks reported earlier on Thursday.

“Caring for the environment cannot cloak itself in illegal activities, no matter high minded are the notions governing people who take part in various activities,” he said in remarks reported (in Russian) on the Russian government’s official website. “They cannot be carried out with illegal methods which (…) are dangerous for people and for technical installations.”

Medvedev went on to suggest that culpability for “unsanctioned incursions of unauthorized persons on oil and gas facilities” should be stiffened.

The piracy charges brought against the “Arctic 30,” as they have been dubbed, carry with them the threat of a 15-year prison sentence and fines as high as 500,000 rubles ($15,000). They have also sparked an international wave of protests for the freedom of the activists, reporters and crew.

According to Greenpeace’s legal coordinator in Murmansk, Irina Isakova, the group’s lawyers will immediately appeal on the basis of what she said were illegal actions of the investigators and the court alike. Yesterday, Greenpeace lawyers filed their promised appeal over the activists’ detention in pretrial holding facilities, a bid to free them on bail. Greenpeace was earlier said to have offered 1 million rubles ($31,000) a piece in bail for the 30 detainees, but the Lenin District court on Thursday turned the offer down.

“The charges of piracy are unequivocally baseless and unproved,” Isakova told Bellona. “Evidence must be admissible, relative to specific individuals and sufficient enough for charges to officially be levied. The steno gram of the interrogation (of the activist) contains no concrete facts that point to any specific individual, meaning the evidence is not relative to anyone in particular.”

She said that, therefore, there was insufficient evidence to charge any of them.

Isakova further said that, “the evidence is not admissible because it was collected in violation of the law. For instance, the detentions occurred largely in the absence of legal counsel, which is illegal relative to foreign citizens.” 

The week of charges has also seen protests from St. Petersburg, where the Environmental Center (ERC) Bellona held a series of one-man protests against the arrest of Dmitry Sinyakov, a freelance photographer who has worked for Reuters, AP and contributed photography to ERC Bellona’s Environment and Rights Magazine.

Greenpeace activists in Germany yesterday chained themselves to fuel pumps at Gazprom petrol stations in a call to release the jailed  Arctic Sunrise crew. And in Basel Switzerland on Tuesday, Greenpeace activists briefly interrupted a Champions League soccer game, unfurling a giant banner protesting Gazprom’s sponsorship of the event.

Amnesty International’s Russian and international offices also weighed in during today’s all-day roll out of charges, calling the them “absurd,” and saying they violate the primacy of rights and should be dropped immediately. 

“Charges of piracy are manifestly unfounded in this case – having no basis in law or reality – and it’s profoundly damaging to level such serious charges so carelessly,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International in a statement.

“The Greenpeace activists must be released on a reasonable bail and given full access to defence lawyers, pending any possible trial,” Dalhuisen said.

In order to stimulate oil and gas development on the Russian Arctic Shelf, the Russian government has promises unprecedented and staggering tax subsidies. Gennady Lyubin, executive director of Gazprom Neft Shelf, the Gazprom division running Russian Arctic shelf oil recovery announced – while the piracy charged were being handed down – that the Greenpeace protest had not interrupted Prirazlomnoye’s progress toward drilling.

“Today, commissioning and start up work on the equipment and systems under load was taking place, the first bore holes are being constructed, and recovery will begin this year,” he told the Prime news agency. “Works are progressing on schedule, and expert evaluations, and monitoring of conditions are taking place.”

Lyubin said that Gazprom Neft Shelf was agreeable to “constructive dialogue” with environmentalists, but such a dialogue has failed to take hold.

Ha said that Greenpeace regularly sends the company inquiries about its work, but no conversation has developed. “To every assertion (from Gazprom Neft Shelf) they say: ‘that won’t work, that’s bad, that’s not right, you are doing everything wrong.’”

“We can have a dialogue when people listen to each other,” Lyubin told the agency. “When one side issues blanket denials, plus manipulates information, that is not a dialogue, that is an attempt to force one’s opinion.”

Norway’s new government this week announced that it would be refusing any plans to develop oil drilling on the Norwegian Arctic Shelf, and drilling in icy areas will be altogether forbidden. Open plots in the southwest and southeast sections of the Barents Sea will remain untouched, to the applause of Norwegian environmentalists and fishermen, who consider the prohibition a victory for the ecosystem and the climate.