Russia charges Greenpeace activists with piracy after protest at Arctic oil rig

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Marco Werman: This next story shows you that one person's activist is another person's pirate. Thirty Greenpeace activists are facing piracy charges in Russia. They were arrested after staging a protest at an offshore oil rig in the Arctic. That rig is run by Russia's state-controlled company Gazprom. Now, Greenpeace says the protest was peaceful. They also called the piracy charges absurd. Whatever the case, the accused are now being held in the northern city of Murmansk and could be sentenced to fifteen years in jail. Freelance journalist Charles Maynes is in Saint Petersburg. Tell us what happened up there in the Arctic with Greenpeace.

Charles Maynes: Well, this was part of a wider Arctic campaign by Greenpeace against drilling in the Arctic. They've been holding various events throughout the year. This particular case, they took their ship, the Arctic Sunrise, close to a Gazprom - this is the Russian oil/gas conglomerate - drilling platform in the Pechora Sea. This is in Russian territorial waters and Greenpeace activists tried to climb the ship, but were rebuffed by the Russian workers on the ship. And then later the Arctic Sunrise, the Greenpeace ship was overtaken by Russian Special Forces and brought back to Murmansk.

Werman: I mean Greenpeace has been waging peaceful protests around the world for decades, occasionally mixing it up with local governments, but why is Russia moving now to press piracy charges against everyone on the ship from the captain on down to the cook?

Maynes: Well, it's a good question and I think it's likely to turn into a big international scandal. I think we're talking about thirty individuals from nineteen countries including Russian nationals, people from Europe, the North America, Latin America, Australia. And it's interesting also because this happened against the backdrop of the Olympics. Russia will host the Olympics in Sochi beginning in February. Already these Olympics have become something where there are a lot of say side-stories and scandals that perhaps the Russian government would not emphasize, including this anti-gay law, there was a Dutch journalist who was essentially kicked out this week, and now it appears that this case will move forward against the Greenpeace activists for piracy. And so essentially you have the Russia holding the world is also imprisoning the world. So it's hard to imagine this promotes a very positive image of Russia.

Werman: Right. And those Greenpeace activists are now sitting in a prison in Murmansk. What's that like? How are conditions in the Murmansk prison?

Maynes: Well, conditions there, it's a large prison, it hold a lot of people. A friend of mine is in fact one of the, a former colleague and friend is one of the activists there. His wife, a long time partner, went to go see him the other day and had access to him for about an hour and a half, and she describes essentially what probably most people would think of a Russian prison. It's not a particularly pleasant place, but, on the other hand, they're being treated fairly well according to my friend. Now this is the radio journalist Andrei Allahverdov who has been working with Greenpeace over the last six months.

Werman: He's a former journalist, now an activist with Greenpeace. What's his alleged crime? Also piracy?

Maynes: Also piracy. He was a press officer aboard the Arctic Sunrise, but, as we've seen today with these charges, the Russian government isn't delineating between the various roles of those in the crew. So everyone from the captain to the cook to the press officer to the actual activists who tried to mount on to this oil rig platform, they are all being charged with the same thing.

Werman: Now, I know in the past five years there has been intense interest among many countries, Russia and the US especially, in the oil that lies up in the Arctic. Is Greenpeace targeting what Russia is doing in the Arctic or are they opposed to all oil exploration and extraction up there?

Maynes: They're opposed to oil drilling that might harm the environment and one of their arguments in terms of Gazprom is that the conditions of this rig aren't safe and that basically you're waiting for an accident to happen. I think it's worth pointing out that in the Russian media there has been a lot of efforts to discredit Greenpeace. They're touted as essentially an American-run organization and that their mission is not so much environmentalism as to kind of attack Russian sovereignty over this territory. And it was interesting today, Russian President Vladimir Putin made comments that in fact this Arctic shelf is an extension of Russia's national interests and that this was something that had always been part of Russia's territory and would remain so in the foreseeable future.

Werman: This could turn into another high-profile case involving protestors and Russia along the lines of Pussy Riot and could attract international condemnation. Is that where things are heading?

Maynes: I think so. I mean I don't see, unless someone in Russia, someone high up, takes a look at what's happening and decides that this just isn't worth the kind of distraction, again, ahead of the Olympics which start in February and I can see this being a major sort of nuisance to Russians as they go about trying to, obviously they want to project a positive image in February as they host the games and this is not helping their case at all.

Werman: Freelance journalist Charles Maynes in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Thank you very much.

Maynes: Thank you.