MOSCOW, September 25 (RIA Novosti) – Russia’s top investigative body said Wednesday that 30 Greenpeace environmental activists involved in staging a protest at a Russian offshore Arctic oil platform last week were placed in pre-trial detention overnight following the opening Tuesday of a criminal case into piracy.
At least three Russian activists were questioned as suspects by investigators, the Investigative Committee said in a statement released Wednesday morning. The foreign activists, believed to make up the majority of the group, will be questioned later as they are waiting for interpreters, it said.
Russian border guards seized the Arctic Sunrise icebreaker and its multinational Greenpeace crew in international waters last Thursday after detaining two environmental activists – Finnish and Swiss nationals – who scaled the side of the Prirazlomnaya oil rig in the Pechora Sea in a demonstration against Arctic oil drilling the day before.
Russian President Vladimir Putin weighed in on the incident Wednesday while speaking at an international forum on Arctic exploration in the northern Russian city of Salekhard.
It is “obvious they’re not pirates,” he said of the Greenpeace activists, but added that they had been trying to seize the rig by force and authorities had responded with due concern for security.
The oil rig targeted by the activists is operated by Gazprom Neft Shelf, a subsidiary of Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom that holds the license for the Arctic field.
The suspects face up to 15 years in prison under the current piracy case, which Greenpeace dismissed as absurd, saying that the protest was peaceful and that the border patrol had seized the Arctic Sunrise at gunpoint.
Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin told RIA Novosti on Wednesday that the classification of the crime as piracy was not final and might change during the course of the investigation.
The detained crew includes activists from the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Finland, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil, Turkey and Poland, among other countries. None of them have yet been charged.
Greenpeace’s Russian branch said Wednesday that investigators had denied foreign diplomats and the NGO’s lawyers access to the detainees.
“Now they are being kept in different detention facilities in the Murmansk Region. Procedural paperwork has only been issued to five of them,” the NGO said in a statement.
Diplomats representing countries including the United States and Denmark said later Wednesday that they had managed to see the detained nationals of their countries, while the Polish deputy consul in St. Petersburg complained he had been stopped from doing so.
The Polish diplomat told RIA Novosti on Wednesday afternoon that he had been barred from meeting Polish members of the crew without any explanation.
The environmental group has hired three lawyers for all its detained activists, but the authorities insisted Wednesday that the suspects should each have their own legal defense, the committee said in its statement.
“Since the criminal investigation is at its primary stage, investigators cannot exclude that in the future, there could be a conflict of interest among some detainees,” the statement said.
Under Russian law, the authorities are allowed to keep a suspect in detention for 48 hours. But investigators can seek a court’s permission to put them under arrest, which can be extended for months.
Greenpeace wrote on its Arctic Sunrise Twitter page Wednesday that almost 450,000 people from 190 countries had signed a petition urging the Russian government to release the detained crew.
Russia’s Natural Resources Minister Sergei Donskoi criticized Greenpeace’s actions at the oil rig, saying they were too aggressive.
“We don’t support this kind of approach, when organizations express their opinion in such an aggressive way,” Donskoi told reporters at the Arctic conference in Salekhard on Wednesday.
Updated with comments and background.