Not 'pirates,' but 'hooligans': Russia reduces charges against Greenpeace crew

But the organization is remaining defiant, calling the new charges over the September oil-rig incident 'ridiculous.'

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian Greenpeace activists display photos of arrested members during a protest in Moscow, Oct. 18, 2013.

Greenpeace gave a defiant retort to Russian authorities who said 30 activists jailed after a high-seas Arctic oil rig protest would face lesser criminal charges, saying new charges of “hooliganism” were even more ridiculous than piracy.

The incident last month, captured in a dramatic video, and Russian prosecutors’ announcement they would charge the activists with piracy sparked a diplomatic standoff with The Netherlands, where the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise is flagged. It also focused new attention on the Kremlin’s policies to drill for oil and gas in the fragile Arctic.

On Wednesday, Russia’s Investigative Committee announced the group of 30 people – which include 28 activists hailing from 18 countries, plus two freelance journalists — would stand trial instead for "hooliganism.” That is a standard criminal charge in Russia that carries a maximum seven-year prison sentence.

Anton Beneslavsky, a Greenpeace-Russia lawyer, said Thursday that the Kremlin should drop the charges altogether, because hooliganism, under Russian law, means some kind of negligence toward social order committed with violence. The activists arrested were trying to board an oil rig owned by the state-owned corporation Gazprom-Neft to hang a protest banner.

"No weapons, no violence, and no activist boarded the platform. And all this took place in Russia's exclusive economic zone, but in international waters. So international law should apply here. It's clearly nothing to do with hooliganism, since Russian social order wasn't in the least affected," Mr. Beneslavsky says. “At least piracy had some validity, since the oil platform might be considered Russian territory. But this new charge is even more ridiculous.”

In its statement, the Investigative Committee gave an unusual explanation for why the stiffer charges of piracy were filed in the first place, suggesting the activists’ refusal to cooperate with authorities was the motivation.

"The refusal of the accused to provide testimony compelled authorities to carefully check all possible versions of what their motives may have been, including seizure of the platform with commercial intentions, terrorism, or carrying out illegal scientific work and espionage," the statement said.

The committee has also hinted that some of the Arctic Sunrise crew might yet face more serious charges, including possible drug offenses.

The affair has triggered an escalating dispute, with Moscow accusing The Hague of allowing the Dutch-flagged Greenpeace ship to stage "illegal provocations" in Russia's Arctic zone of economic influence.

For its part, the Netherlands turned this week to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to adjudicate what it regards as Russia's unlawful seizure of a Dutch ship on the high seas.

Russia's position is that its zone of economic interests is subject to Russian sovereignty, and therefore its border guards had every right to seize the ship and arrest its crew. Holland argues that the action occurred in international waters, and Russian law does not apply.

It's exactly the kind of case the Tribunal was established to resolve. But in a statement Wednesday, Russia's Foreign Ministry insisted that Moscow was "open to the settlement" of the case, but would not take part in the Tribunal's deliberations or recognize any ruling, despite being a signatory to the United Nations treaty that established the Tribunal.

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