Russia’s powerful Investigative Committee announced last week that the piracy charges – which carry a 15-year jail sentence – would be replaced with charges of hooliganism. But when the thirty detainees were brought before the Committee over the course of this week, the piracy charge was not withdrawn. Instead each of them was simply served with the additional charge of hooliganism.
They now stand accused of both offences, which carry a maximum sentence of 15 and 7 years, respectively.
Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo said:
“As things stand the Russian authorities propose to jail thirty men and women for maybe twenty years because two peaceful protesters tried to hang a small yellow banner from the side of a five hundred thousand tonne oil platform. First this saga shocked people across the world, now it has descended into farce. Those campaigners were willing to risk their liberty to shine a light on dangerous Arctic oil drilling, but the authorities’ reaction has been wildly disproportionate. The legal hammer now being wielded against them says so much more about those who have brought these charges than it does about the prisoners. They are neither pirates nor hooligans, they are simply people possessed of a conscience who care about our common future and they should be released immediately.”
Once the charge of piracy is withdrawn, by law the detainees should be immediately released. This is because international law prohibits one country from seizing another country's vessels in international waters, except in the most extreme cases, such as piracy. Allowing states to seize each other's vessels for lesser trumped up charges would be a major threat to international relations and commerce.
On Wednesday next week the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) will hear the case brought by the Netherlands demanding the release of the 30 and the return of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise. The Netherlands hold the boarding and subsequent detention to be illegal. Greenpeace International has submitted an Amicus Curiae brief in support of the Dutch request (1). President Putin and the Investigative Committee have both publicly admitted that this is not a case of piracy, which begs the question whether maintaining the piracy charge is just a ruse to avoid the prisoners’ inevitable release.
The authorities clearly stated to the world’s media that the absurd charge of piracy would be withdrawn, but they have not been true to their word.
Greenpeace International understands from diplomatic sources that the Arctic 30 are being moved from a detention centre in Murmansk to a jail in St Petersburg.
Lawyers for Greenpeace are not aware of the reasons for the move. Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo said:
“The detainees shouldn’t be in jail at all, they should be free to be join their families and to restart their lives. St Petersburg has some daylight in the winter months, unlike Murmansk. And families and consular officials will now find it easier to visit the thirty. But there is no guarantee that conditions inside the new detention centre will be any better than in Murmansk. In fact they could be worse. There is no justification whatsoever to keep the Arctic 30 in any prison for a day longer. They are prisoners of conscience who acted out of a determination to protect us all, and they should be free.”