Conflict & Justice

Greenpeace activist tells of life in a Russian prison

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Credit: REUTERS/Dmitri Sharomov/Greenpeace/Handout via Reuters
A passenger train, with a green carriage believed to hold 30 people who were arrested over a Greenpeace protest at the Prirazlomnaya oil rig, travels from Murmansk to St. Petersburg, Russia, November 11, 2013.

Russian journalist Andrey Allakhverdov was among a group of Greenpeace protesters who were arrested in September as they protested at an offshore oil drilling platform in the Arctic. From his cell in Murmansk, a city in the far north of Russia, Allakhverdov wrote letters describing life there.

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The Greenpeace protest was non-violent and directed against Gazprom, a Russian gas company that ranks among the world's largest. Greenpeace's boat, the Arctic Sunrise, was overrun by Russian special forces in international waters.

The 30 protesters were originally charged with piracy, a crime that carries a sentence in Russia of up to 15 years. The charges, though, have since been reduced to "hooliganism." The protesters are from countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (the successor to the USSR), Europe, North America, Australia, and Latin America.

During his nearly two-month detention in Murmansk,  Allakhverdov wrote to his partner Veronica Dmitriyeva. "What he was writing to me from Murmansk," she says, "was mostly that he was okay, that I shouldn't worry about him too much, that his day-to-day life is not a big fun, but also that he can survive it and that life conditions are sort of bearable, and that he can eat the food, more or less."

The less appetizing food referred to the stewed and canned meat he received, Dmitriyeva said. He got some pasta or potatoes at lunch, but his other two meals were porridge.

"I was worried that it's cold in his cell and he was saying, 'well, we are getting fresh air from the window, but in general it's not so freezing' ... He was also saying that the staff of the detention place is not very polite, but at the same time, they behave decently and don't violate their basic rights and behave according to basic instructions."

Dmitriyeva said that Andrey felt some sympathy from his guards. "He was saying everyone at the detention place understands how ridiculous the accusations are and how ridiculous the whole situation is, but that they cannot do anything."

She shared excerpts from Andrey's letters, which she said were reviewed by prison guards:

"In the cell, it's tolerable enough. There was a crack in our window, but we patched it up with some painters tape, which they place on parcels to identify the recipient. So now across the window, we've got a white band with my name written on it. We wanted to close off the draft with band-aids, but the medical office wouldn't give them to us for the simple reason that they don't have any."

"When they took us to meet with the investigators, they brought us over in a 'Gazelle' mini-van. It's the first time I've seen the city [Murmansk] in daylight. Amazing, already one month here, and it's the first time I've seen it. Such a strange feeling: Looking out the window, it's almost like you're just taking a regular bus ride. But then you look over and there's the guard, the handcuffs.... All so close and yet so far away."

Dmitriyeva says Andrey has now been transferred to a notorious prison in St. Petersburg, and she hasn't heard from him since.

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