WARSAW/ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed to Russia on Thursday to show leniency towards 30 people arrested during a Greenpeace protest against Arctic oil drilling.
The authorities released 10 more activists on Thursday, bringing to 26 the number that have now been freed on bail after two months in custody.
Freelance photographer Denis Sinyakov hugged his wife after his release and Ekaterina Zaspa, the doctor on the Greenpeace icebreaker used in the protest, embraced her husband.
“I am not guilty, and there is no crime in people organizing peaceful protests,” Sinyakov, 36, told reporters outside a court in St. Petersburg.
In Warsaw, U.N. chief Ban said groups such as Greenpeace had a role in shaping the world, not just governments and business.
“They (Russia) may have their own domestic rules and regulations but I would hope that they would have some favorable and sympathetic considerations for this case,” he told Reuters.
At a meeting in Moscow with writers, Putin said protecting the environment was a noble goal but the ends did not justify the means.
“Is their cause noble? Yes, it is noble. Did they do the right thing when they climbed the platform? No, they did the wrong thing,” Putin said in televised comments.
During the protest, some of the activists tried to scale state-controlled Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya rig.
The activists could have caused an accident by distracting the platform’s operators, Putin said.
The activists were initially charged with piracy and faced up to 15 years in jail over the September 18 protest.
Putin said a week after the protest that the activists were clearly not pirates and investigators later changed the charge to hooliganism, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years.
They had been denied bail until hearings this week to decide whether they should be held for another three months. By Thursday, courts had granted 26 of the 30 bail and ruled that one, Australian Colin Russell, can be held until February 24.
The rulings follow criticism of Putin over what has widely been seen in the West as the harsh treatment of the activists. Kremlin opponents see it as part of a clampdown on perceived threats during the six-year third term he won in March 2012.
Any activists held through February 24 will be in custody during the Winter Olympics which Russia will host in the Black Sea report city of Sochi. Putin has staked a lot of political prestige on hosting a successful Games.
Those released include citizens of Argentina, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, New Zealand, Poland and Russia.
Greenpeace said it was not clear how much their movement would be restricted and whether they would be allowed to leave Russia. Courts have set bail at 2 million roubles ($61,100).
Greenpeace, which says its protest was peaceful and the charges unfounded, is concerned drilling for oil in the Arctic threatens the environment. Putin has said development and shipping there are important to Russia’s economy and security.
Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Steve Gutterman, Editing by Angus MacSwan