thursday, 24 october of 2013

Russia reduces charges in Greenpeace case


Russia reduces charges in Greenpeace case

Russian investigators on Wednesday dropped piracy charges against the crew members of a Greenpeace International ship who staged a protest against oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean last month, but said they would still face lesser charges of hooliganism.

The announcement by Russia’s Investigative Committee appeared to be the first step toward de-escalating a growing diplomatic confrontation over the fate of the ship, the Arctic Sunrise, and the 30 crew members, activists and journalists aboard, but it did little to resolve it.

All 30 are being held in the northern city of Murmansk in what Greenpeace officials describe as grim prison conditions, and they could still face prison sentences as long as seven years if convicted of hooliganism. Piracy convictions carry a maximum penalty of 15 years.

Until Wednesday evening, Russia had shown no sign of bending to criticism from human rights and environmental organizations on the case. Only hours earlier, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected an appeal by the Netherlands, where the ship is registered, to have the matter resolved by a tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Greenpeace rejected the reduction of charges, saying that the investigation was meant to stifle debate and peaceful protests. It again called for the immediate release of all the crew members.

“The Arctic 30 are no more hooligans than they were pirates,” Vladimir Chuprov of Greenpeace Russia said in a statement. “This is still a wildly disproportionate charge that carries up to seven years in jail. It represents nothing less than an assault on the very principle of peaceful protest.”

The ship and its crew were seized by helicopter-borne border guards in the Pechora Sea on Sept. 19, a day after two of its activists scaled the side of Russia’s first offshore oil platform in the Arctic. Russian troops cut their cables and fired warning shots.

Greenpeace staged the action, similar to one a year before that ended without arrests, to call attention to what the organization says are the dangers of oil drilling in the fragile Arctic environment. The crew members include citizens from 18 nations, including two from the United States.

The ship and its crew were towed to port in Murmansk, where each person was charged with piracy and denied bail. It was not immediately clear how the change in charges would affect the legal proceedings already under way.

The reduction of the charges appeared to reflect remarks made by President Vladimir V. Putin at a conference on the Arctic a month ago. He suggested that those onboard were clearly not pirates, but vigorously defended the actions of the border guards and said Russia would not tolerate any infringement on its sovereignty in the Arctic.

The protest focused on the Prirazlomnaya offshore oil platform, not far from the island of Novaya Zemlya, the former nuclear test range for the Soviet Union that was a target of Greenpeace actions in the 1990s. The platform is owned by the state-controlled energy company Gazprom and represents the manifestation of Russia’s ambitions to exploit the natural resources of the Arctic, made more and more accessible by the changing climate.

Gazprom completed it last year, though it has delayed actual production until next year amid safety and environmental concerns of the sort Greenpeace has sought to highlight.

The investigative committee also raised the possibility of bringing new charges against some of the crew members, including using violence against the authorities, even though both Greenpeace and the Russian authorities have said no one onboard was armed or resisted when the ship was seized.

(Published by The New York Times – October 23, 2013)

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