Russian authorities are keeping 28 Greenpeace activists and two freelance journalists in detention after the environmental group attempted to stage a protest against offshore oil drilling in the Arctic at a platform owned by Russia's Gazprom. All 30 detainees have been charged with piracy.
RFE/RL's Mark Krutov spoke to Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International.
RFE/RL: Greenpeace activists have been campaigning on environmental issues for decades now. What kind of legal issues have you run into over the years?
Naidoo: Probably the worst impact of any action taken against Greenpeace was the murder of one of our activists, Fernando Pereira, when French intelligence bombed the "Rainbow Warrior" 27 years ago in Auckland, New Zealand. We have had activists that have been in prison. In Copenhagen, for example, some of our activists were held for 21 days over Christmas and New Year's.
We have activists who engage in peaceful protests around the world who often are arrested, but often the charge is trespassing and that usually carries a fine rather than prison time. The worst prison time, as far as I understand, that any of our colleagues have served is six months.
RFE/RL: Have piracy charges ever been leveled against Greenpeace activists?
Naidoo: We have never been charged with piracy. There have been cases where sometimes a government might start talking about piracy and then quite quickly realize that "these guys are peaceful, they are not armed, and they are not acting for personal gain, so therefore they don't meet a lot of the basic definitions of piracy" and it's struck.
RFE/RL: The Russian authorities accuse the activists of violating Russian and international law. You have expressed the desire to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. If Putin agrees to this meeting but makes it a precondition for the activists' release that Greenpeace admits guilt, will you comply?
Naidoo: It depends [on] admitting the guilt for what, right? If it is to admit the guilt for piracy, definitely not.
Clearly, if we were to admit that we broke the law at the level of breaching the exclusion zone, for example, and to admit that -- which is a violation -- we would be happy to admit that. But to say that we tried to storm the rig, to say that we are pirates, and so on, and that we were risking property and people -- all of which is not true -- that we cannot honestly concede to, even if it means getting the people released.
The biggest crime being committed is the environmental crime of pursuing drilling in the Arctic for oil, when in fact the threats -- of climate change on the one hand, but also to the environment of the Russian Arctic -- [are] so potentially devastating that history will judge this is the biggest crime that went unpunished and unregulated.
RFE/RL: You have said that Greenpeace is not picking a fight with the Russian government and that your protest focused on Gazprom. Are you aware, though, of the close ties between Putin and Gazprom?
Naidoo: Yes, we are aware of that. But our focus is not on the presidency or the government per se. Our focus is on a company that, we believe, might be operating within the law, but is engaged in environmental destruction and will lead the planet to climate disaster.
Especially when just recently the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that we are running out of time, there has to be more urgency, and that known fossil fuel reserves -- a significant chunk of it -- [need] to stay underneath the ground where they are if we are to prevent runaway catastrophic climate change.
And runaway catastrophic climate change, just to be clear, means that life on this planet as we know it will be threatened and we will put at risk our [children's] and grandchildren's future. That's what is at stake. And that is why the Artic is so important and that is why we have been taking these actions.
RFE/RL: Could you clarify the status of Russian national Denis Sinyakov, one of the two freelance journalists who were detained during Greenpeace's protest last month. Can he be considered an activist, too?
Naidoo: The Greenpeace activists made a conscious decision -- they knew that there are potential consequences whenever Greenpeace activists take action. But we don't expect the journalists to get arrested. That's why in my letter to President Putin I said that it's not fair. As Denis said: "The crime I'm accused of is called journalism, and I will continue to do it."