MOSCOW (Reuters) - Thirty people arrested in Russia over a protest against Arctic oil drilling were moved from the northern city of Murmansk on Monday on their way to pre-trial detention centers in St. Petersburg, federal investigators and Greenpeace said.
The transfer of the 28 activists and two journalists may be aimed at curbing international criticism of Russia over what the environmental group says was a peaceful protest.
Activists have reported being confined for 23 hours a day in bleak, sometimes ice-cold cells in Murmansk, a port city above the Arctic Circle whose remote location complicates access for lawyers and consular officials.
The Kremlin has essentially rejected Greenpeace head Kumi Naidoo’s offer to travel to Russia and stand as security for the release of the detainees, who come from 18 nations on five continents.
They were arrested after coastguards boarded the Greenpeace icebreaker Arctic Sunrise following a protest at an oil platform owned by state-controlled Gazprom off Russia’s northern coast on September 18.
Charged with hooliganism and facing up to seven years in prison if convicted, they had been denied bail and held in pre-trial detention in Murmansk, 1,000 km (640 miles) north of St. Petersburg.
Lawyers who tried to visit them on Monday were told they had been moved out before dawn, Greenpeace said and Russia’s federal Investigative Committee said they would be taken to detention facilities in St. Petersburg.
“St. Petersburg has some daylight in the winter months, unlike Murmansk,” Ben Ayliffe, an Arctic campaigner for Greenpeace said in a statement, but said there was no guarantee of better conditions.
In London, families of five of the six detained Britons said they hoped the transfer from the isolated Arctic port to Russia’s second-largest city would allow the detainees greater access to consular officials and lawyers.
But at a news conference after meetings with Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Ministry officials, none of the family members saw the transfer as signaling an imminent release.
“There’s lots of reasons why they could have made this move,” Jenna Saunders, the partner of detained activist Philip Ball, said alongside Ball’s mother and brother. “It could be positive but it doesn’t necessarily mean it is.”
When prisoners are transferred across Russia’s vast distances, they are often taken in special trains.
“From the information we have the (railroad) cars are not heated,” Ayliffe said. “We have advised the 30 to dress in warm clothes and shoes. We have also organized prompt deliveries of additional supplies of warm outfits.”
Russia says the environmental activists violated the law in the protest in which some tried to scale the Prirazlomnaya platform, Russia’s first offshore oil rig in the Arctic and part of its efforts to develop the region’s oil and gas reserves.
Russia has refused to take part in a case at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, in which the Netherlands is seeking the release of the activists, two of whom are Dutch, and the Dutch-registered Greenpeace vessel.
Additional reporting by Shadi Bushra from London; Editing by Janet Lawrence