Greenpeace activists pass the Kremlin.
Credit: Vasily Maximov

BERLIN, Germany and MOSCOW, Russia — The Russian authorities announced plans on Monday to send 30 imprisoned Greenpeace activists from the Arctic city of Murmansk to face trial in St. Petersburg even as the Netherlands is suing for their immediate release in an international maritime court.

“This [transfer] typically involves an unpleasant journey of at least 27 hours in an unheated prison train or in police vans,” Greenpeace International general counsel Jasper Teulings told GlobalPost.

Sticking around Murmansk would also be no picnic, however.

“If they are not transferred, the detainees face six weeks without any daylight as a result of the polar night,” Teulings said.

The crew of the Arctic Rising, which was captured by the Russian coast guard while they attempted to board Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya offshore oil drilling platform in September, faces official charges of hooliganism.

Greenpeace says the transfer began at around 5 a.m. local time, while Russia's Investigative Committee confirmed in a statement earlier today the intention to move the activists to St. Petersburg.

A new video of the arrest released by Greenpeace depicts Russian soldiers in black balaclavas dropping onto the Arctic Sunrise from a helicopter as activists hold the Dutch flag.

The activists were seeking to stop Moscow-based Gazprom, one of the world's largest natural gas and oil companies, from drilling for oil in the Arctic, where the environmentalists say the project threatens the ecosystem.

Critics say the company lacks the technical experience in offshore drilling necessary to avoid dangerous spills as well as adequate safety standards to forestall other accidents.

They point to the December 2011 collapse of an oil rig operated by a Gazprom subsidiary in the far eastern Sea of Okhotsk, when 53 people were killed or went missing.

Last week, the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea began hearing a suit brought by the Netherlands — under whose flag the Arctic Sunrise sails — demanding the immediate release of the ship and its crew.

The Netherlands argues that the activists’ arrest and confiscation of any evidence were illegal under international law because Russia had no authority to board the ship, which was outside of Russian territorial waters.

Piracy charges, which were initially leveled against the activists, aren’t appropriate, either, Teulings said.

“The protest was not against a ship but a platform, it was entirely peaceful and it was not committed for private ends but to highlight an issue of genuine public concern,” the lawyer said. “Drilling for oil in the Arctic poses serious threats to the local environment and the global climate.”

In Russia, where environmental activism has yet to attract a widespread following, many feel otherwise.

According to a poll released Monday by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, of the 63 percent of respondents who are familiar with the case, 56 percent said they believe the arrests were justified.

Around 26 percent of those said the activists posed a real danger to the workers, while 30 percent believe the Arctic should be defended as Russia’s “zone of national interest.”

The same poll found that only 18 percent of Russians approve of Greenpeace’s global actions, while 32 percent are simply “interested.”

Russia, which refuses to acknowledge the UN-sponsored maritime tribunal's jurisdiction in the case, has boycotted the proceedings, invoking limitations it required before signing the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1997.

The Netherlands argues that those limitations don’t apply in this case.

“The tribunal will independently assess whether it has jurisdiction,” Teulings said, adding that Russia’s failure to show up would not present a problem. “The tribunal can still issue a judgment that will be binding upon the parties, as both are signatories to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

A spokeswoman for the tribunal declined to comment on its powers citing the case’s ongoing status.

Signatories including Russia have honored the court’s rulings in 22 past cases, according to the tribunal's website.

Greenpeace’s Jörg Feddern, who’s in charge of the campaign on behalf of the Arctic 30, says Russia’s decision is a departure from its previous “respectful engagement” with the tribunal.
“Greenpeace assumes that the Russian Federation will accept the judgment and our colleagues will be released soon,” he said in an email.

In the tribunal’s sole previous case involving Russia, in which Japan filed for the release of two captured fishing vessels in 2007, Russia complied with the judgment and released the ships within a week of the court order.

The proceedings represent a ray of hope for the 30 activists.

The conditions of their imprisonment are harsh, Teulings said. Without a ruling from the tribunal, an ongoing arbitration process also initiated by the Netherlands could take a year or more.

Under Russian law, the authorities can hold the activists as long as 18 months before they even see the inside of a courtroom, although the Kremlin’s human rights council asked Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin in a letter last week for the authorities to release the activists from pre-trial detention.

“Individual circumstances vary, but there are concerns with respect to food and drinking water, dark cells, restrictions on communications with the outside, and the allowed exercise time and facilities,” the Greenpeace lawyer said.

“The detainees are confined to a prison cell 23 hours of the day. They are allowed up to one hour of exercise in a small, covered courtyard once a day,” he added. “Women are allowed one shower per week, men one per fortnight. The windows to the cells are poorly isolated and some are broken. Detainees have complained they need to sleep with their gloves and hats on.”

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Teulings said there are also concerns about the fairness of legal proceedings in Russia, if and when they take place.

“Some detainees report having been questioned without their lawyers being present by unidentified men under threat confinement into a ‘punishment cell’ if they fail to reveal ‘interesting information,’” the lawyer said.

Greenpeace is waging a high-profile campaign to draw attention to the case. On its homepage, Greenpeace International urges visitors to “Stand with the Arctic 30” and send a form letter to Russian embassies worldwide demanding their release. 

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