Russian court order activists held over Arctic oil protest

MOSCOW Fri Sep 27, 2013 10:27am EDT

1 of 9. Greenpeace activists hold portraits of their detained colleagues as they protest outside the Russian embassy in Mexico City September 27, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Edgard Garrido

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian court ordered 20 Greenpeace activists from around the world to be held in custody for two months pending further investigation over a protest against offshore oil drilling in the Arctic, drawing condemnation and a vow to appeal.

In proceedings that Greenpeace said evoked Soviet-era scare tactics, activists from a ship used in the protest at an oil rig were led to court in the port of Murmansk in handcuffs and held in cages for a series of hearings that ended early on Friday.

Twenty activists, a freelance photographer and a freelance videographer were ordered to be held for two months, while eight activists were ordered to be held for three days pending a further hearing, the environmental advocacy group said.

All 30 were detained last week aboard the icebreaker Arctic Sunrise, which was seized by Russian coast guards in the Barents Sea after two activists tried to scale state-controlled Gazprom's Prirazlomnaya offshore oil platform.

Russia's federal Investigative Committee has termed the protest an attack and opened a criminal case on suspicion of piracy, which is punishable by up to 15 years in jail. The activists have not yet been charged.

Several were crew of the Arctic Sunrise, from deck hands and cooks to its American captain Pete Willcox, a veteran of Greenpeace protests at sea, Netherlands-based Greenpeace International said.

"These detentions are like the Russian oil industry itself, a relic from an earlier era. Our peaceful activists are in prison tonight for shining a light on Gazprom's recklessness," Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo said.

In a statement, Naidoo said Greenpeace would appeal the rulings.

The 30 people included six Britons and four Russians as well as nationals of Argentina, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and the United States.

President Vladimir Putin said at an Arctic forum on Thursday that the activists were clearly not pirates but had broken international law, suggesting they might end up facing less severe charges.

The spokesman for the Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin, said on Thursday that activists ordered held for two months might be released on bail before that period ends if their role is found to have been minor.

Greenpeace has said it was the Russian law enforcement authorities who broke the law by boarding the Arctic Sunrise, and denied the piracy allegations, saying its activists had conducted a peaceful protest.

OIL SPILL FEARS

"The Russian authorities are trying to scare people who stand up to the oil industry in the Arctic, but this blatant intimidation will not succeed," Naidoo said in a separate statement on Thursday.

Nils Muiznieks, human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, told Reuters the denial of bail "clearly raises human rights concerns", saying pre-trial detention should be used only in exceptional circumstances when there is no alternative.

He urged Russia, a council member, to abide by standards for protecting the right to free expression and peaceful assembly.

Greenpeace says scientific evidence shows any oil spill from Prirazlomnaya, Russia's first offshore oil platform in the Arctic, would affect more than 3,000 miles of Russia's coastline.

In Bulgaria, police arrested six Greenpeace activists who blocked a Gazprom gas station to protest its Arctic drilling plans. Four of them had chained themselves to fuel pumps and waved banners that read: "Stop Gazprom, Save the Arctic" and "Gazprom = Arctic destruction".

The Prirazlomnaya rig - a crucial part of Russia's effort to tap oil and gas in the Arctic - is slated to start operating by the end of the year and is expected to reach peak production of 6 million tonnes per year (120,000 barrels per day) in 2019.

One of those ordered held for two months was Denis Sinyakov, a freelance photographer who was documenting the protest.

The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said Sinyakov's detention was an "unacceptable violation of freedom of information," and dozens of journalists and activists protested outside the Investigative Committee headquarters in Moscow.

(Additional reporting by Angel Krasimirov in Sofia; Editing by Jon Boyle and Mike Collett-White)

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