Russia has dropped piracy charges against 30 people involved in a Greenpeace protest over Arctic oil drilling, replacing them with lesser charges.
Russian news agencies quoted Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin as saying on October 23 that the charges against activists who protested at an oil platform last month had been changed from piracy, which carries a maximum jail sentence of 15 years, to hooliganism, which carries a maximum punishment of seven years in prison.
Two journalists covering the protest face the same charges.
In reaction, Greenpeace Russia Director Ivan Blokov expressed relief that the piracy charges had been dropped, but maintained all the activists and journalists are innocent.
"Of course, our activists are neither pirates nor hooligans," Blokov said. "Hooliganism charges, like piracy charges, can be brought only if there was violence or the threat of violence. It is clear that Greenpeace activists could not use any kind of violence and in the 42 years of the organization's existence, there was not a single case of use of violence. This does not happen and this cannot happen."
"So these new charges are not justified either. So we really hope that these new charges will be dropped soon as well and the people will be freed," he added.
Twenty-eight Greenpeace activists and two journalists, including citizens of 18 countries, have been held in Russia since their ship, the Dutch-flagged "Arctic Sunrise," was seized by the Russian Coast Guard after activists tried to scale a Gazprom offshore drilling platform in the Arctic on September 18.
The reduction in charges followed an announcement earlier in the day that Russia would not participate in an international arbitration process over the Dutch-flagged Greenpeace vessel.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it would not take part in the process because it had opted out of dispute settlements under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
That move was viewed as dealing a blow to The Netherlands, which had started international arbitration procedures at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
"It is surprising that this change of charges coincided with the Dutch appeal to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea," Greenpeace's Blokov said. "Despite the fact that the decision of this tribunal is compulsory for Russia, Russia nonetheless refused to accept the tribunal's decision, but have quickly changed charges against our activists. I don't know if this is a coincidence or not."
Based on reporting by Itar-Tass, Interfax, Reuters, and AFP