MOSCOW, October 23 (RIA Novosti) – Investigators in Russia said Wednesday that they have dropped piracy charges against environmental activists and freelance journalists detained last month aboard a Greenpeace ship.
Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said the group will instead be charged with hooliganism.
The decision appears to mark a climb-down from the firm line previously adopted by prosecutors, although the Greenpeace group could still potentially face several years in prison.
Hooliganism in Russia carries a maximum penalty of seven years in jail.
Russian authorities seized Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise icebreaker in mid-September after activists tried to scale an oil rig in the Arctic in protest against offshore drilling in the area.
All 30 people on board – comprising 28 Greenpeace activists and two freelance journalists – were detained and later charged with piracy, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Greenpeace said in a statement that it was unsatisfied with the downgrade.
“The Arctic 30 are no more hooligans than they were pirates. This is still a wildly disproportionate charge,” the statement said. “Those brave men and women went to the Arctic armed with nothing more than a desire to shine a light on a reckless business.”
Markin of Russia’s Investigative Committee also said some members of the group could face charges of using force against state officials.
He said the Greenpeace group’s lack of cooperation with investigators had unnecessarily drawn out the process.
“The failure of the accused to give evidence gave cause for investigators to carefully consider all alternative versions of what took place,” Markin said.
He said investigators needed to consider whether the Greenpeace group had attempted to board the oil platform for financial gain, terrorism or to conduct illicit research activities and espionage.
Greenpeace rejected suggestions that its activists had put anybody at risk.
“It is a cheap libel to accuse those campaigners of doing anything other than protesting peacefully, they arrived at that oil rig in a ship painted with a dove and a rainbow,” it said. “Our ship was seized by men with knives and guns, while the Arctic 30 raised their arms.”
Russia has come under mounting international pressure over the case.
Eleven Nobel Peace Prize laureates last week petitioned President Vladimir Putin to ask him to aid in releasing the group.
“We are writing to ask you to do all you can to ensure that the excessive charges of piracy against the 28 Greenpeace activists, freelance photographer and freelance videographer are dropped,” said the letter, which was co-signed by South African archbishop Desmond Tutu and Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi.
Putin weighed in on the Greenpeace issue a few days after the group was detained by criticizing the activists’ actions, but argued that what they had done was not piracy.
“Our law enforcement authorities and border guards didn’t know who might be trying to seize the rig under the guise of Greenpeace activists,” he said in remarks televised by the state-run Rossiya-24 television.
Updates with Markin quotes, Greenpeace statement.