MOSCOW — Piracy charges against 30 people who were aboard a Greenpeace ship protesting Arctic drilling have been reduced by Russian authorities to hooliganism, the head of the Investigative Committee announced Wednesday.
The Russian coast guard seized the Arctic Sunrise after two activists attempted to climb onto an oil rig in the Pechora Sea on Sept. 19; Russian authorities later towed the ship to Murmansk. Greenpeace said the protesters expected to face perhaps 15 days in Russian custody, but investigators charged all of those on board with piracy — which carries a 15-year sentence — and the courts refused to grant bail.
The action made global headlines and has roiled relations between Russia and the Netherlands. The Arctic Sunrise was sailing under a Dutch flag, and the Netherlands protested what it said was an illegal seizure in international waters.
The incident marks the stiffest crackdown on Greenpeace since French intelligence agents sank the Rainbow Warrior in 1985.
Even President Vladimir Putin, who criticized the protest, said it was clear it did not amount to piracy. But, day after day, defendant after defendant has appeared in the Murmansk courtroom over the past month, and they've all been sent back to their cells to face trial.
Now, charged instead with hooliganism, they face maximum sentences of seven years, although conviction usually brings milder punishment.
"The Arctic 30 are no more hooligans than they were pirates," a statement issued by Greenpeace said. "We will contest the trumped up charge of hooliganism as strongly as we contested the piracy allegations. They are both fantasy charges that bear no relation to reality. The Arctic 30 protested peacefully against Gazprom's dangerous oil drilling and should be free."
The 30 defendants hail from 18 countries. Two, Capt. Peter Willcox and Dima Litvinov, are Americans. Greenpeace says all 30 have been held separately in the Murmansk jail and have had difficulty asking for supplies because they don't speak Russian. All have reportedly been visited by consular officials from their respective countries.
The investigators' move came just hours after the Foreign Ministry announced that Russia would not take part in a tribunal on the ship's seizure requested by the Dutch government under the provisions of the International Law of the Sea, which Russia ratified in 1997. The ministry statement says that Russia does not recognize the authority of the tribunal in cases involving sovereignty.