Putin says Arctic activists ‘not pirates’ but broke law

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Moscow (AFP) – President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that 30 Greenpeace activists arrested by Russia for a high seas protest against Arctic oil exploration were “not pirates” but had broken the law, as the authorities questioned the campaigners.

Russia has opened a criminal probe into suspected piracy by the four Russian and 26 foreign Greenpeace activists, under an article carrying a maximum punishment of 15 years in prison.

Putin’s comments created hopes that the “Arctic 30” might not face such severe criminal charges although there is so far no sign they could be released.

Police placed the activists in detention centres in and around the far northern Russian city of Murmansk after they were moved ashore from the group’s Dutch-flagged vessel.

Greenpeace had sent a team of inflatable boats to the Gazprom platform in the Barents Sea on September 18 from its Arctic Sunrise icebreaker to protest the energy giant’s oil drilling in the pristine environment.

“It’s completely obvious that of course they are not pirates,” Putin told an international Arctic forum in the far northern city of Salekhard in his first comments on the high-profile seizure of the Greenpeace vessel.

But he noted that “formally they tried to seize the platform.”

“It was completely obvious these people violated the norms of international law and got dangerously close to the platform,” he said.

‘Out of concern for the environment’

‘We will not be intimidated’

Greenpeace’s international executive director Kumi Naidoo in a statement welcomed Putin’s recognition that the activists were not pirates “and acted purely out of concern for the Arctic environment”.

A spokesman for the Russian Investigative Committee said earlier Wednesday that the current charges might be changed if new evidence emerges.

Vladimir Markin, the spokesman for the Investigative Committee, the Russian equivalent of the FBI, said in a statement that all 30 activists had been detained “as suspects.”

The world’s largest gas company, Gazprom has built up its oil activities in recent years, and is the first company to seek to produce oil in the seas of the Russian Arctic.

Greenpeace says the project, which aims to start production in 2014, is an ecological disaster waiting to happen due to the poor condition of Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya oil rig.

During the protest, Greenpeace hitched two activists to the side of the rig who tried to scale the platform but eventually slipped into the freezing water and were recovered by the Russian coastguard.

Russian security services then seized control of the activists’ vessel by descending onto the deck from helicopters in a commando-style raid and towed it into Murmansk.

After being taken ashore Tuesday evening for questioning, the activists were put in detention centres where suspects are held before trial, known in Russia as Investigative Isolators (SIZO).

Greenpeace said five activists were questioned into the early hours of Wednesday. Yevgenia Belyakova, a Greenpeace activist, said nine more were questioned later Wednesday.

‘We did not know who they were’

Speaking from Murmansk, Belyakova added that the activists had been moved ashore without any basic necessities like toothbrushes.

The foreign campaigners are nationals of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Denmark, the United States, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Ukraine, France, Italy, Turkey, Finland, Switzerland, Poland and Sweden.

Diplomats from some of the activists’ countries have travelled to Murmansk but had so far not been able to meet with the detainees.

‘We did not know who they were’

Putin sought to defend the Russian authorities’ response, saying it was not immediately clear that those storming the platform really were campaigners from Greenpeace.

“Our law enforcement agencies, our border guards did not know who was trying to seize the platform under the guise of Greenpeace,” he told the Arctic forum.

Greenpeace however rubbished the claim, saying it was patently obvious who the activists were.

“The border guards claim they were unaware the #ArcticSunrise was a Greenpeace Intl ship. Surely the giant logo on the side was a clue?” it wrote in a tweet.

Putin acknowledged that the “fragile” Arctic environment should be handled with care but dismissed the Greenpeace protest as a PR stunt.

“A technical error could have happened and could have created a risk to the life and health of people,” he said.

© AFP

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