Canadian Greenpeace Activists in Russia Still in Custody

arcticA once contained issue has now brought the attention of thousands of people across the world putting more pressure on the Russian government about its harsh criminal penalties and corrupt justice system.

International tensions with Russia grow even stronger after their latest issue involving the arrest and prosecution of 30 Greenpeace International activists.

Now, the pressure is mounting on Russia as the fight to Free the Arctic 30 continues into its 40th day.

Back in September, 30 Greenpeace activists, including a free-lance photographer, videographer, and crew members, were arrested by the Russian government following a demonstration against the Arctic oil drilling project, Gazprom.

The Greenpeace ship, Arctic Sunrise, was illegally boarded by the Russian Coast Guard following two prior arrests made when two crew members had attempted to climb over the platform of the Prirazlomnoye oil field in the Pechora Sea.

Among those arrested are 36-year-old Alexandre Paul of Montreal, Quebec, and 48-year-old Paul Ruzycki of Port Colburne, Ontario.

Now, one may wonder the reason behind this huge debacle, and how it sparked so much outrage from the public. According to the Russian Coast Guard, a survival pod that was being used in the protest appeared to resemble a bomb, and as a result, they boarded the ship to neutralize the supposed threat.

According to Faiza Oulahensen, an activist aboard the ship when it was seized, violence was being used aboard the ship. The Coast Guard detained the activists with guns and knives, and fired several shots even though they were within their rights to be in the waters in the first place.

“They were hitting people, kicking people down, pushing people,” Oulahensen alleged.

Luckily, no one was injured or killed during the arrests. However, this appears to be a clear example of a “shoot now, ask questions later” mentality.

Oulahensen also wrote a letter to a journalist from de Volkskrant, a local newspaper in the Netherlands, accounting her experience in prison.

She is being “held in a dirty cell, alone, isolated from the rest,” she says, and is “only able to catch a glimpse of other Russian prisoners in the corridor.”

“Once in a while, a rat crawls across the floor. I’ve lost weight and am not sleeping too well, but I am still holding my head high,” Oulahensen accounted. She complained about having been denied the right to call home and not receiving most of the books and letters people were sending her. “I crave letters from my family, friends, and colleagues.”

Her description of Russia’s prison system is quite vivid, and she stated that her daily exercise consists of “walking around in a dark concrete space of about 5×5 meters, where you’re lucky if you can see the sky through the cracks in the rotten and leaky roof.”

In response to the arrests, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated, “I don’t know the details of what went on, but it’s completely obvious they aren’t pirates.” However, Putin backs up the Coast Guard’s defense, claiming that they had no way of knowing who they were.

He was referring to the attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi last month by the Al-Shabaab.

Bail hearings have already begun for the activists, but so far, reportedly all of their requests have been denied. The Arctic 30 are currently being detained in Murmansk, where they will be held until November.

As of now, only one member, Andrey Allakhverdov from Russia, was charged with hooliganism. The group was initially facing 15 years of terrorism and piracy charges, but as of October 24, the charges were formally dropped down to hooliganism, which in Russia, holds a seven-year sentence.

Although the charges have been lessened, there is arguably still a threat to their freedom of expression and demonstration.

The incident sparked media attention around the world, with articles being published in EcoWatch, CBC, and The Independent. Over 10,000 people have showed their support for the release of the Arctic 30 at more than 100 events hosted in 36 different countries, including Germany, Italy, Thailand, Mexico, and the Netherlands. In addition, more than 1.6 million people have signed the petition addressed to Russian embassies around the world calling for the release of these activists. Some have even gone as far as climbing the Eiffel Tower in protest, like Greenpeace activist Cyril Cormier did on Saturday.

However, what really grabbed the public’s attention was the fact that 11 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including Desmond Tutu (South Africa), Betty Williams (Ireland), Oscar Arias Sanchez (Costa Rica), Jody Williams (USA), Adolpho Perez Esquivel (Argentina), Leymah Gbowee (Liberia), Tawakkol Karman (Yemen), Rigoberta Menchu Tum (Guatemala), Mairead Maguire (Ireland), Shirin Ebadi (Iran), and Jose Ramos Horta (East Timor) all wrote letters to Putin showing their support for the Arctic 30.

In Canada, various events have taken place in support of the release of the Arctic 30 as well, including in Toronto and Montreal on October 5. Greenpeace is also urging Canadians to join the #FreeTheArctic30 campaign by signing the Free Our Activists petition to the Russian Embassy, joining the Volunteer Arctic 30 Rapid Response Team, and spreading the word through social media and community events.

Among the tremendous support, though, there is some controversy among the general public over the issue, with a large number of people online arguing that the Arctic 30 should be charged. On the other hand, many legal experts around the world think otherwise. Here are a few statements from various members of the public:

“Piracy requires premeditated action of the attackers to take over others’ property for their own selfish interest. This means that the qualification of the actions of the environmentalists as piracy is inadequate both under Russian and international law.”
-Viktoria Zhdanova, head lawyer of the Inmarine law firm, Russia (back when the charges of piracy still stood)

“According to the Russian penal code, however, piracy presupposes a threat of violence, which the officials have since had the chance to clarify. I do not believe that either the vessel or the activists were found to carry instruments suitable for acts of violence.
“For this reason, the piracy charges have lost their basis, and the court should have rejected the demand to keep the activists in custody.”
-Martin Scheinin, Professor of International Law and Human Rights, European University Institute)

“Is Hooliganism linked to Canada’s ‘mischief’ law and the pending penalties for one’s mischievousness would or could equate to a seven year term in the slammer so to speak? Or that of the usual slap on the wrist with a conditional free pass to go home?”

“One gets the impression that the Greenpeace crew is more committed to ‘adventure crusading’ than to actually changing our energy sources.
“Russia is the world’s number one oil exporter, but is ranked 148th for freedom of speech. So expecting an unobstructed right to protest on a Russian oil rig is simply unrealistic. If Greenpeace wanted provoke arrest, then they should demonstrate their respect for the rule of law by submitting to the punishment. Rather than seek acquittal or commutation, Greenpeace should embrace the harshest penalties and so provoke a larger global outcry.
“At best, Greenpeace’s civil disobedience only offers delay.”