MURMANSK, Russia – Russia’s top investigative agency said Tuesday it will prosecute Greenpeace activists on piracy charges for trying to climb onto an Arctic offshore drilling platform owned by the state-controlled gas company Gazprom.
The 30 activists from 18 countries _ including Canada_ were on a Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise, which was seized last week by the Russian Coast Guard. The ship was towed Tuesday into a small bay near Russia’s Arctic port of Murmansk.
The Investigative Committee, Russia’s main federal investigative agency, said its agents will question all those who took part in the protest and detain the “most active” of them on piracy charges.
Two Canadians are among those who could find themselves embroiled in the Russian legal system. Paul Ruzycki of Port Colborne, Ont., was serving as the ship’s chief mate when it was seized last Thursday. A Canadian from Montreal whose name has not been released was also on board.
Piracy carries a potential prison sentence of up to 15 years and a fine of 500,000 rubles, or about $16,200 Cdn.
Greenpeace’s Arctic Campaign Co-ordinator Christy Ferguson denounced the potential charges as “absurd,” saying prosecuting peaceful protesters goes against the internationally accepted definition of piracy as a violent act for commercial gain.
“The only purpose of that protest was to bring global attention to an environmental catastrophe and to secure environmental protection,” Ferguson said in a telephone interview from Toronto. “So both on the basis of the nature of the activities and also the purpose of the activities, it doesn’t even come close to piracy charges. It looks to us like a desperate attempt by the Russian authorities to justify their actions of the last days.”
Ferguson said the two Canadians had met with diplomats who had been dispatched to the port where the ship was docked, but said she was not privvy to their discussion. She said Greenpeace was taking the diplomats’ presence as a good sign that the Canadian government was willing to take action.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who was in Montreal Tuesday, was asked about the situation.
“Obviously in the past Greenpeace has taken provocative actions on the high seas, and obviously it needs to follow all the specific rules and regulations with respect to navigation, but I haven’t seen the direct charges,” he said.
The crew of the Arctic Sunrise first locked horns with Russian authorities last week when two activists tried to climb onto the Prirazlomnaya platform while others assisted from small inflatable boats. The Greenpeace protest was aimed at calling attention to the environmental risks of drilling for oil in Arctic waters.
“When a foreign vessel full of electronic technical equipment of unknown purpose and a group of people calling themselves members of an environmental rights organization try nothing less than to take a drilling platform by storm, logical doubts arise about their intentions,” Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said in a statement.
He said the activists posed a danger to operations on the oil platform. “Such activities not only infringe on the sovereignty of a state, but might pose a threat to the environmental security of the whole region,” Markin said.
The oil platform, the first offshore rig in the Arctic, was deployed to the vast Prirazlomnoye oil field in the Pechora Sea in 2011 but its launch has been delayed by technological challenges. Gazprom has said it was to start pumping oil this year, but no precise date has been set.
Ferguson insisted the seizure of the ship was illegal under international law.
One Greenpeace activist told The Associated Press that Coast Guard officers hit and kicked some activists when they stormed the Greenpeace vessel.
The Arctic Sunrise was anchored Tuesday in Kulonga Bay near Severomorsk, the home port of Russia’s Northern Fleet, 25 kilometres north of Murmansk.
Ferguson said the activists were then taken by bus to the Investigative Committee’s headquarters in Murmansk, where they were waiting to speak with lawyers.
Aside from Canada, Greenpeace said the activists hailed from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and the United States.