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Families Say Detained Greenpeace Crew 'Ordinary, Peaceful People'


Photographer Denis Sinyakov was denied bail by a Murmansk court on October 8.

Photographer Denis Sinyakov was denied bail by a Murmansk court on October 8.

When her husband left for the Arctic last month to cover a Greenpeace protest against offshore oil drilling, Alina Zhiganova watched him go with a heavy heart.

She knew the reporting trip would keep him away from home for several weeks.

But neither of them suspected how dramatically the protest would end for all those involved, including for Zhiganova's husband, distinguished Russian photojournalist Denis Sinyakov.

On September 19, Russian authorities detained all 30 people on board Greenpeace's icebreaker, "Arctic Sunrise," and charged them with piracy for attempting to stage a protest on an oil platform owned by Gazprom.

The defendants, many of whom are foreigners, have all been remanded in custody for two months pending trial.

They face up to 15 years in prison.

Zhiganova was able to pay a brief visit to her husband at his pretrial detention center in the northern Russian city of Murmansk.

What she saw deeply alarmed her.

"He's holding his head high," Zhiganova says, "but as someone who has known him for a long time, I can see that he's not well at all. He has lost a lot of weight. He has huge black circles under his eyes. You can tell he's having a hard time."

'The Death Of Freedom Of Speech'

A court in Murmansk denied bail to Sinyakov on October 8, saying he was a flight risk although he and Zhiganova have a 3-year-old son.

Speaking by videolink from his detention center, he told the court that he had only been covering the protest as a journalist and that his prosecution "spells the death of freedom of speech in Russia."

At the same hearing, a Greenpeace spokesman and the doctor onboard the "Arctic Sunrise" were also denied bail.

Sinyakov had been documenting the protest for the Russian news website Lenta.ru and also took pictures for Greenpeace on a freelance basis.

Another freelance journalist, British national Kieron Bryan remains in detention after the court turned down his bail appeal on October 11.

The charges of piracy leveled against the environmental activists and the two reporters, widely denounced as disproportionate, have sparked a barrage of criticism worldwide.

Under Greenpeace's plan, two activists who began to scale the Gazprom platform were to unfurl a banner reading "Don't Kill the Arctic."

Russian Coast Guard personnel eventually descended onto the ship from helicopters and threatened the crew with guns before towing the vessel to Murmansk.

The group says it had no plan to take control of the platform and that its ship was in international waters when it was seized.

Kumi Naidoo, the head of Greenpeace International, described all 30 detainees as prisoners of conscience and demanded a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

INTERVIEW: RFE/RL Speaks With Greenpeace's Kumi Naidoo

In Russia, Sinyakov's jailing has caused particular dismay.

Fellow journalists have rallied to his defense, staging pickets, launching petitions, and publishing black squares in place of photographs on their websites as a sign of solidarity.

More than 300 journalists sent a note to the court in Murmansk calling for his release.

Russian journalists demonstrated in support of Sinyakov in Moscow on September 26.

Russian journalists demonstrated in support of Sinyakov in Moscow on September 26.

They say his prosecution sets a dangerous precedent that could embolden authorities to punish reporters simply for covering protests critical of Kremlin policies.

Putin's own human rights council condemned Sinyakov's detention as "a crude violation of the law on mass media" and noted that journalists covering news events "cannot bear responsibility for the actions of those participating in this event."

Zhiganova, however, says her husband is all but cut off from the outside world and was unaware of the campaign until his lawyer briefed him during a recent prison visit.

"Denis did not know about what was going on in Moscow -- about the protests, about the fact that newspapers were publishing black squares instead of photos," she says. "He didn't know any of that. He is isolated from society. He's in pretrial detention together with criminals and, apart from his lawyers, he has no contact with anyone."

Agonizing Separation

For the families of foreign activists detained on the "Arctic Sunrise" the separation has been just as agonizing.

Anita Litvinov, the wife of Swedish national Dmitry Litvinov, says she is currently waiting for a Russian visa to visit him in detention.

Litvinov last spoke to her husband on September 19, when he called to congratulate their son on his 14th birthday. The couple lives in Stockholm and has two other children.

Dmitry Litvinov (right) faced a court in Murmansk on September 26.

Dmitry Litvinov (right) faced a court in Murmansk on September 26.

Since then, the family has received only sporadic news from him through the Swedish Embassy in Russia.

"Based on everything I hear, I'm very, very worried, and very anxious," she told RFE/RL. "I'm very eager to have him back home."

Anita Litivnov stresses that Greenpeace has a long history of nonviolent protests.

Last month's stunt at the Gazprom oil platform, she says, was no exception:

"I know my husband and I know some of the other people who were on the 'Arctic Sunrise,'" she said. "They are ordinary peaceful people. They wanted to draw attention to a problem that is connected to environmental pollution and global warming. Their intentions are, and have always been, peaceful."

EXPLAINER: Five Things To Know About Russia's Greenpeace Drama

Some observers believe that Russian authorities are seeking to deter Greenpeace from staging further protests in the Arctic -- which Russia wants to turn into its top source of oil and gas over the next decade – and that the activists will soon be released.

Putin has defended their detention. But he has also said the activists were not pirates, fuelling hopes they would be spared jail sentences.

Sinyakov's wife, at any rate, has no intention of giving up her battle to free him: "If I didn't have hope, I would go mad."

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