* Russia drops piracy charges, cuts maximum jail term in
* Activists face up to seven years in prison if convicted
* Greenpeace says charges still unjustified
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, Oct 23 Russia on Wednesday dropped
piracy charges against 30 people involved in a Greenpeace
protest against Arctic oil drilling, replacing them with lesser
offences and cutting the maximum jail sentence they face to
seven years from 15 years.
The charges against activists who protested at a Gazprom
oil platform off Russia's northern coast last month
have been changed from piracy to hooliganism, the federal
Investigative Committee said in a statement.
Greenpeace said the new charges were still "wildly
disproportionate" and promised to contest them.
All 30 people who were aboard the Greenpeace ship Arctic
Sunrise during the Sept. 18 protest, in which activists tried to
scale the Prirazlomnaya platform, are being held in detention in
the northern Murmansk region until at least late November.
The Investigative Committee said it had begun the procedure
of pressing the new charges, which carry a maximum sentence of
seven years in prison. The piracy charges were punishable by 10
to 15 years.
Greenpeace said the hooliganism charge "represents nothing
less than an assault on the very principle of peaceful protest".
"This is still a wildly disproportionate charge that carries
up to seven years in jail," Vladimir Chuprov of Greenpeace
Russia said in a statement.
"We will contest the trumped up charge of hooliganism as
strongly as we contested the piracy allegations. They are both
fantasy charges that bear no relation to reality," he said.
"The (activists) are no more hooligans than they were
pirates," he said, adding that they had "protested peacefully
against Gazprom's dangerous oil drilling and should be free."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the activists were
clearly not pirates but that they violated international law.
MORE CHARGES POSSIBLE
The Investigative Committee dismissed Greenpeace's claim
that the protest was peaceful, saying "anyone who illegally and
premeditatedly seizes ... a stationary platform is committing a
crime, no matter what their motive."
The committee said the investigation was continuing and
reiterated an earlier statement that it could still bring
additional severe charges against some of the activists,
including the use of force against representatives of the state.
Courts in the Russian city of Murmansk have denied bail to
the 30 people detained - 28 activists, including the crew of the
Arctic Sunrise, and two freelance journalists who were
documenting the protests.
Those arrested include American, Argentinian, Australian,
Brazilian, British, Canadian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French,
Italian, New Zealand, Swedish, Swiss, Polish, Russian, Turkish
and Ukrainian citizens.
Greenpeace has said the arrests and charges are meant to
frighten off campaigners protesting against drilling in the
Arctic, a region Putin describes as crucial to Russia's economic
future and its security.
Moscow says the environmental protesters violated a security
zone around Prirazlomnaya, which is Russia's first offshore oil
platform in the Arctic and is scheduled to begin production by
the end of the year after delays.