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Russian court detains Greenpeace activists for two months

Greenpeace International/AFP

An activist dressed as a polar bear holds a banner in front of Greenpeace's Arctic protest ship, moored beside a Russian Coast Guard ship in Kola Bay near Murmansk on September 24, 2013, in a photo provided by Greenpeace International - Copyright : Greenpeace International/AFP

Moscow (AFP)

A Russian court on Thursday ordered 17 Greenpeace activists to be detained for two months over an open-sea protest against Arctic oil drilling, in a criminal case that has caused international concern.

The court is holding marathon hearings to decide whether to extend the detention of 30 activists from the Dutch-flagged Greenpeace protest ship Arctic Sunrise, being held on suspicion of committing piracy, which carries a prison term of up to 15 years.

It has already ruled that 13 foreign activists from countries including Poland, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, Turkey, Denmark, Italy and France, be held in detention until November 24.

Among them was Marco Weber of Switzerland, one of the two activists who tried to scale an oil platform owned by Russian state energy giant Gazprom in a protest in the Barents Sea on September 18.

The captain of the ship, US citizen Peter Willcox, will also be detained for two months.

Willcox is a veteran Greenpeace activist who was captain of the environmental group’s ship the Rainbow Warrior when it was bombed by the French secret service in New Zealand in 1985.

The court in the northern city of Murmansk also ordered the detention of four Russian activists for two months, including Denis Sinyakov, a freelance photographer who works under contract for Greenpeace.

Sinyakov, a former AFP and Reuters photographer, said in court that “all the accusations are baseless.”

“My weapon was my camera,” he was quoted as saying by Greenpeace.

The activists’ treatment has sparked international criticism.

The Netherlands demanded their immediate release and said it was considering legal action after Russian border guards took control of the Dutch-flagged Arctic Sunrise and locked up the crew.

The activists had attempted to scale state energy giant Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya oil platform in protest at oil exploration in the Barents Sea.

The border guards seized the vessel after descending on ropes from helicopters, then towed the ship to Murmansk.

The court is holding simultaneous hearings in six different courtrooms, rushing to process all 30 activists, and is set to continue until 1 am Friday (2100 GMT Thursday), Greenpeace spokespeople said.

The arrests also sparked outrage from rights activists including veteran campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva.

“The fact that they have arrested foreigners is savagery on the part of our police state,” Alexeyeva told AFP. “In a civilised country they would have been released already.”

Five activists and crew members including Swedish spokesman Dmitry Litvinov had their detention extended by 72 hours until a new hearing.

Several major Russian news websites including that of popular Moscow Echo radio said they would not run any photographs on Friday in solidarity with Sinyakov.

Several journalists picketed the Moscow headquarters of the Investigative Committee, some holding placards reading: “A photographer is not a pirate.”

“By investigating this photographer and the Greenpeace activists he was accompanying on such an absurd accusation as piracy, the Russian Investigative Committee is criminalising both journalists and environmental activism,” Reporters without Borders said.

‘This blatant intimidation won’t succeed’

Greenpeace said that activists were brought into the court building in handcuffs, which were later removed.

“The Russian authorities are trying to scare people who stand up to the oil industry in the Arctic, but this blatant intimidation will not succeed,” said Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo.

A Russian investigator told the court that Greenpeace seized property with threats of violence and committed “unlawful acts as a criminal group.”

Greenpeace expert Roman Dolgov said at his hearing, broadcast online by RT television channel, “our organisation is not a violent one, it is peaceful,” before he was detained for two months.

Russia has opened a case into piracy, although President Vladimir Putin took a milder stance on Wednesday, telling an international Arctic forum that “of course they are not pirates.”

This has raised hopes that even if they are eventually charged, it will be under a less grave article than piracy.

But Putin said the activists had broken international law by coming dangerously close to the oil platform.

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov told Moscow Echo radio that Greenpeace had acted in “an absolutely illegal way.”

Signature : AFP

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