At least 14 Greenpeace activists have been charged with piracy by a Russian court for trying to board an Arctic oil drilling platform owned by the Russian state corporation Gazprom-Neft during a protest action last month. The charge carries a minimum prison sentence of 10 years, and as many as 15 years.
Officials of Greenpeace-Russia say they fear all 30 crew members of the protest ship Arctic Sunrise, including two journalists, are likely to be hit with the same charge in coming days as court hearings drag on in Russia's northern port of Murmansk.
The ship was seized by Russian border guards and towed to Murmansk last week, amid accusations by the Kremlin's Investigative Committee that the peaceful Sept. 18 attempt by two activists to climb aboard Gazprom's giant Prirazlomnaya offshore oil platform in the Barents Sea constituted an act of "terrorism" and "piracy."
"This is very bad. We are totally shocked because, until today, we had hoped that the Investigative Committee [which is Russia's supreme law enforcement body] were going to see reason and at least reduce the charges from piracy," says Vladimir Chuprov, head of Greenpeace-Russia's energy program. The arrested Greenpeace crew includes members from 18 different countries, including Russia.
Speaking to an international audience at last week's Arctic Forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that the initial reactions of Gazprom personnel who used fire hoses to repel the Greenpeace activists, and Russian border guards who fired gunshots to bring the Arctic Sunrise to heel, were justified.
"Our law enforcement officers and border guards did not know who was using Greenpeace’s name to try to board the platform," Mr. Putin said, according to the Kremlin transcript of his remarks.
But in retrospect, Putin said later, "they are obviously not pirates.... What is clear is that they violated international law and came dangerously close to the platform."
Greenpeace says the crisis is the worst the organization has faced in decades of peaceful protesting since French secret service frogmen bombed the Rainbow Warrior protest ship in Auckland Harbor in 1985, killing a Greenpeace photographer.
"It's very difficult to understand this disproportionately aggressive reaction of the Russian authorities," says Mr. Chuprov.
He says the tough criminal charges may be a message from Gazprom, which Greenpeace has accused of starting up major drilling operations in the sensitive Arctic zone without carrying out a proper environmental review, that future protests will not be tolerated.
"This case shows that here in Russia, the interests of oil and gas oligarchs have priority," says Yevgenia Chirikova, one of Russia's leading environmentalists.
"The courts, border guards, even Putin seem to be at their beck and call. The oligarchs and their assets appear to be more important than the national interests of Russia," she says.
"The Greenpeace activists have my deepest respect because they acted within the spirit of Russia's law on protection of the environment, which stipulates public control.... Just think of it, people from other countries are ready to come here to protect our nature."
Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov alleged last week that the protesters had endangered the lives of Gazprom divers who were working near the Prirazlomnaya rig at the time, though Greenpeace says the activists, who arrived on rubber rafts, could not have done that.
"This tough line is motivated by Gazprom, which could have handled the matter very differently if they had wanted to," says Igor Chestin, head of the Russia branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
"They could have invited the activists on board the platform for tea and a chat, and that would have been the end of it. Instead we saw this very harsh reaction, compounded by the border guards when they arrived, which escalated beyond all reason," he says. "It's perfectly clear that there was no piracy, no hint of violence or robbery or anything like that. Yet now these people are facing a minimum of 10 years in prison. That's out of all proportion."