Greenpeace activists granted bail in Russia. Is Sochi a factor?

Russian courts grant bail to 19 of 30 detained Greenpeace activists, but only one walks free. Analysts point to international pressure on Russia in run-up to Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

Vladimir Baryshev/Greenpeace/Courtesy via Reuters
Greenpeace activist Anne Mie Roer Jensen (c.) of Denmark is escorted during a hearing at Primorskiy Court in St. Petersburg November 20, 2013. Courts in the city of St Petersburg, where the 28 activists and two journalists were taken last week, have granted bail to 19 of 30 detained Greenpeace activists.

A roundup of global news reports

In a dramatic easing of its hardline stance, Russian courts granted bail this week to nineteen of the thirty Greenpeace crew members detained since September for a protest outside a Russian oil rig in the Arctic. Seven activists received the good news today, joining others who appeared in court on Monday and Tuesday, while another twelve are still awaiting custody hearings. So far, only one detainee has been set free.   

The rulings follow weeks of intensifying international pressure on Moscow to free the group of 28 activists and two journalists, known as the 'Arctic 30'. Russia wants to polish its global image in the countdown to February’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. This week’s positive developments notwithstanding, the crew members remain in legal limbo in Russia. 

The first of the detainees left a St. Petersburg prison cell today, Reuters reported, while the rest awaited release within days:

The first […] walked free on bail on Wednesday, brandishing a sheet with the words "Free the Arctic" written on it.

Brazilian Ana Paula […] smiled as she left a detention center in St Petersburg. Asked how she felt, she said simply "happy" before being driven off by a Greenpeace representative.

The rulings were welcomed by observers as a change of heart, after previous bail requests were rejected. The crew of the Arctic Sunrise has become an international cause célèbre, and the case is a source of embarrassment for Moscow in the midst of its Olympic preparations. Foreign government officials and global celebrities from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to musician Paul McCartney have taken up the campaign on their behalf, and two weeks ago the Netherlands petitioned the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to order Moscow to let the detainees go free. 

Russia has slowly dialed down the pressure on the activists, reducing their charges from piracy to hooliganism and moving them from the Arctic city of Murmansk to St. Petersburg.

But although this week’s decisions were greeted with jubilation by activists and their supporters, the Arctic 30 aren’t out of the Russian legal woods yet. For now, they remain very much in the Kremlin’s grip. Their charges remain in place, their passports had been confiscated, and they may not be able to leave the country, Reuters reported.

And, inexplicably, one bail request, from a 59-year-old Australian activist Colin Russell, was denied on Monday, The Guardian reported. He will now have to remain in detention until February 24, the day after the Olympics end. The Telegraph added more details from the Wednesday courtroom scene: 

The charges of hooliganism remain in force, however, and the bailed defendants could still potentially spend “a long time” waiting for the case to be resolved, [activist Alexandra] Harris’ lawyer Natalia Belousova said outside the court room.

“The good news comes with a warning” Greenpeace head Kumi Nando said, according to the organization’s official statement:

We still have no idea what conditions our friends will endure when they are released from jail, whether they will be held under house arrest or even allowed outside. What we do know for certain is that they are still charged and could spend years behind bars.

For now, the international focus on Sochi appears to have changed the Kremlin's stance. “International pressure is the scariest concept for Putin,” Stanislav Belkovsky, director of the Moscow-based National Strategy Institute told the Moscow Times, an English-language daily. “Putin wants to show everyone that he himself released the activists out of his greatness and goodwill, and that he is not moved by external pressure.”

“Without Sochi, there would have been no release,” he said. 

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