It increasingly appears that Russia intends to make a very harsh example of 30 Greenpeace activists arrested last month for attempting to hang an environmental banner on a huge offshore oil drilling platform in the Barents Sea that's owned by the state corporation Gazprom-Neft.
The Kremlin's Investigative Committee, Russia's supreme police body, suggested in a statement Wednesday that in addition to facing piracy charges, which carry a maximum 15 year prison sentence, some activists may also be charged with drug offenses.
Investigators searching the captured Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise, say they have found unspecified articles of "dual purpose" and opiate-based narcotics.
"It is clear that a number of defendants will also be charged with other serious crimes," the statement quotes Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin as saying.
The 30 people arrested aboard the Greenpeace ship in Russia's economic zone – but not in legal territorial waters – on Sept. 19 include people from 18 different countries, at least one of whom is a journalist.
The issue has led to an escalating diplomatic spat between Russia and the Netherlands over the activities of the Dutch-flagged Arctic Sunrise, with Russia claiming the Dutch government failed to "intervene in the vessel's illegal activities." For its part, the Netherlands has threatened to contest the "illegal" Russian seizure of the ship and its crew at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg.
The Russo-Dutch acrimony reached a peak Tuesday after Moscow demanded an explanation for the weekend arrest and alleged mistreatment of a Russian diplomat in the Netherlands, Dmitry Borodin, who was reportedly suspected by Dutch police of child abuse.
"Russia continues to await exhaustive explanations, if these are even possible, and real apologies from the Netherlands," for ignoring Mr. Borodin's diplomatic immunity, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement.
The Dutch foreign ministry released a statement on Wednesday apologizing for the violation of Borodin's immunity, though it noted that "the police officers concerned were acting in accordance with their professional responsibility in responding to a reported situation."
Greenpeace insists that the threatened drug charges against crew members of the Arctic Sunrise are part of a campaign of slander against its activists rather than a genuine legal process. "The Investigative Committee is behaving like a tabloid of the yellow press," says Greenpeace-Russia spokesperson Anton Beneslavsky.
"There are no charges, yet they put out this information without any evidence or facts. Our ship was seized in international waters, and that was illegal. The crew were held on it for five days before being removed. Now investigators say they've searched it and found drugs? There is a complete disregard for all legal procedure on display here," Mr. Beneslavsky says.
Some experts say the Russian state corporations Gazprom and Rosneft, which are leading the Arctic economic development scheme, are extremely sensitive about their lack of technological preparation and ecological expertise, and are hence anxious to see a harsh warning meted out to environmentalists who want to come snooping on their projects.
"Gazprom has made great efforts to conceal the way it's working on the Arctic shelf. It has outdated equipment, the reliability [of] that platform is unpredictable, the cost of production is high, and the ecological consequences of an accident might be catastrophic," says Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the independent Institute for National Strategy in Moscow.
"That probably explains why Russian law enforcement is prosecuting those Greenpeace activists in such a tough way. They are simply protecting the interests of these big state companies."