MOSCOW Russia is preparing to move 30 Greenpeace activists who were arrested over a protest against Arctic drilling from the far-north city of Murmansk to St. Petersburg, the environmental group said on Friday.
The detainees, including two journalists, have been charged with hooliganism for the September 18 protest in which the activists tried to scale Russia's first offshore Arctic oil rig, the Prirazlomnaya, owned by state energy company Gazprom.
Russia's Investigative Committee, which is leading the case, could not be reached for comment and the reasons behind any such move were not immediately clear.
Greenpeace International head Kumi Naidoo said it would be easier for relatives and consular officials to reach them in St. Petersburg, about 700 km (440 miles) from Moscow, rather than in remote Murmansk. The transfer was expected to start within days.
Naidoo said the group, whose vessel, the Greenpeace icebreaker Arctic Sunrise was forcibly boarded by Russian coast guards after the protest, should be freed immediately.
"The detainees shouldn't be in jail at all," he said in comments distributed by Greenpeace. "They are prisoners of conscience who acted out of a determination to protect us all, and they should be free."
St. Petersburg will also be more convenient for state investigators.
The Investigative Committee reduced initial charges of piracy against the activists and changed them to hooliganism, cutting the maximum jail term from 15 years to seven, after President Vladimir Putin said they were no pirates.
The case has blackened Russia's image in the West, with the Netherlands lodging a legal case with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea seeking to free all those under arrest.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Friday told a joint press conference with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault that the case will be handled in line with Russian law.
He reiterated Moscow's stance that the Greenpeace protest posed a threat to the security of personnel and environmental safety by disturbing the work at the platform.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Angus MacSwan)