Fate of Greenpeace activists remains unclear

Protestors call for release of Greenpeace activists Keystone

Russian authorities have reduced the charges against 30 Greenpeace activists from “piracy” to “hooliganism”. But the activists, including the Swiss Marco Weber, still face up to seven years behind bars for their protest in the Arctic.

This content was published on October 23, 2013 - 21:41
Lioudmila Clot, swissinfo.ch

On October 21, Weber and the others were denied bail by a court in the northern city of Murmansk. Then, on October 23, the Russians said they had reduced the activists' charges and changed their maximum prison time to seven years from the original 15.

Greenpeace called the revised charges still "wildly disproportionate" and said it would contest them as strongly as it had the piracy charges.

Journalists in Russia have been joking that the activists would have done better to protest by dancing in a church – like the Pussy Riot members arrested in 2012: it would have been less expensive, would have made just as much noise, and they would have ended up with much shorter sentences. 

"Warm-hearted" Swiss faces tougher road

Weber’s case could be more serious than that of most of the other detainees: he and Sini Saarela of Helsinki did not merely sail up close to Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya oil drilling rig, they also attempted to scale it.

According to his colleagues, Weber, who had been working on the ship for a long time, “is one of the best of us”. They describe him as a “warm-hearted and very tough”. His nickname, Chruseli or “Curly”, got transformed into Crusoe, because of his love of travelling. At the age of 28 he has already been to Iran by motorbike, and has also visited North and South America, Asia and Russia. In addition he teaches Greenpeace activists climbing techniques. By trade he is a carpenter and has his own small firm, which, according to his father Eduard, will probably fold during the time he spends in prison.

Consequences

Were the activists prepared for the fact that they could be arrested in Russia? Members of the Swiss section of Greenpeace gave swissinfo.ch different answers. “We can’t say, we don’t have anything to do with them.” “You can’t put someone on trial for trying to climb a wall.” “People who take part in actions are aware of the consequences.”

Andreas Freimüller, a former Swiss Greenpeace activist, who was placed under arrest in Murmansk in 1992 during an expedition to the Arctic, bases his opinion on experience. Since the early 1990s he has visited Russia many times, and believes that 20 years ago there was a trend towards openness in the country, but that in recent years the screws have been tightened.

“In the 90s we never heard anything about ending up in prison for taking part in a demonstration,” he told swissinfo.ch.

Greenpeace is present in Moscow today and they are perfectly well aware of changes in legislation - including a 2012 law obliging NGOs that receive any part of their funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents”. So the people who are now in prison in Murmansk knew where they were going. However, they did not expect to be prosecuted for piracy, a crime not even President Putin thinks has been committed.

Law of the Sea

The Netherlands has submitted the case of the Russian seizure of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise – which sailed under the Dutch flag – to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

But Russia says it will boycott the hearing. It claims that the “Greenpeace militants… violated Russian legislation on its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf”.

When it ratified the Law of the Sea Convention in 1997, Russia made clear that it would not accept the procedures contained in it for settling differences concerning the sovereign rights of the parties.

The Netherlands has called for the immediate release of both the ship and the 30 people currently in prison in Murmansk in connection with a protest action carried out against the Prirazlomnaya drilling rig in September.

They face charges of hooliganism, and Russian investigators have said they are considering further charges; in particular they claim to have found drugs on board the Arctic Sunrise when they seized it.

Greenpeace has categorically denied the accusation.

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Legal process

Peter Gysling, the Moscow correspondent of Swiss public radio and television, SRF, says it is hard to predict whether the activists will be given prison terms, but that the legal process could drag on so long that they will spend a few months, or as much as a year in jail.

“I think today that the foreign activists could be released in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and perhaps even sooner,” Gysling told swissinfo.ch.

“But for the Russian citizens who have been arrested (who are not in fact activists), the outlook could be much bleaker. Unfortunately.”

The three Russians are Greenpeace press officer Andrey Allakhverdov, the ship’s doctor, Yekaterina Zaspa, and a professional photographer, Denis Sinyakov.

“As the West sees it, the Russian action in towing away the boat and arresting the Greenpeace members in international waters is completely illegal and unjustified. But others will decide about that,” Gysling added.

More than a million signatures have been collected worldwide in support of the detainees, and 11 Nobel laureates have sent a message about the case to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Switzerland’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper commented that the confrontation with the Greenpeace activists could turn out to be more dangerous for Russia than competition with its Arctic neighbours.

Prizalomnaya platform

The Prirazlomnaya deposit, after which the rig is named, is located on the shelf of the Pechora sea, about 60 kilometres off-shore, in Russia’s exclusive economic zone.

There are 200 oil workers on the Prirazlomnaya platform. They have to put up with the Polar night, and a winter that lasts nine months, with temperatures falling as low as -46° C.

There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. If this extraordinarily complex and hi-tech project by Gazprom is successful, it will greatly enhance Russia’s prestige.

The rig, which weighs 506,000 tons, is the heaviest in the world.

 
Building of the lower part of the huge structure, the caisson, started in the crisis years of the 1990s. For the upper part, the accommodation section, in 2002 Russia bought Norway’s Hutton platform, built in 1984 and which the Norwegians had intended to write off as scrap.

There was a corruption scandal associated with this purchase: instead of the initial price of $29 million, Russia paid an offshore company $67 million.

It was due to come into operation in 2013, but this has been delayed.

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