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Russian Seizure of Greenpeace Ship Challenged at UN Court

Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs Aide Liesbeth Lijnzaad
Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs Aide Liesbeth Lijnzaad, right, told the judges at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg that the Dutch-flagged Arctic Sunrise and its activists must be allowed to return home. Photographer: Patrick Lux/AFP via Getty Images

Russia must release a Greenpeace ship and 30 crew members who risk as long as seven years in jail on hooliganism charges for protesting drilling in the Arctic, the Netherlands told an international tribunal.

The Dutch-flagged Arctic Sunrise and the activists must be allowed to return home, Liesbeth Lijnzaad, an aide to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the judges at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg today. An interim order is needed to safeguard their rights of liberty and security, she said.

“They have been held for almost six weeks now,” said Lijnzaad, adding that Russian arguments to keep them are “evidently unfounded.”

Russia has faced protests around the world since it detained members of the icebreaker’s crew for their role in a Greenpeace campaign against Arctic drilling in September and charged them with piracy, which is punishable by as long as 15 years in prison. Russian authorities later said they would downgrade the charges to hooliganism which carries a sentence of up to seven years. Greenpeace has said that Russia still hasn’t formally dropped the piracy charge.

21 Judges

The tribunal, composed of 21 judges, including one from Russia, is hearing a request by the Netherlands seeking an interim ruling while an arbitration court can be established to rule on the dispute.

The Netherlands started an arbitration case against Russia at the tribunal in early October under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty governing the international maritime regime. Additionally, the Netherlands on Oct. 21 asked the judges for the interim order.

A day later, Russia told the tribunal that while it was open to an amicable solution, it would boycott the hearing because the court has no jurisdiction over the arrest of the activists since it was an internal law enforcement action.

Russia has also failed to nominate an arbitrational judge - - a step necessary to get the arbitration process going.

While coastal states may exert jurisdiction and exploit resources in the so-called exclusive economic zone, extending to a maximum of 200 nautical miles, they can’t hinder the free passage of vessels and must exert their powers with restraint, Dutch representative Rene Lefeber told the court. These vessels are under the authorities of the nation whose flags they fly not of the coastal state, he said.

‘Overstepped’ Limits

“Russia overstepped these limits,” said Lefeber. “The Netherlands, a coastal state itself, has always defended the freedom of navigation and it is doing so here today.”

Vladimir Golitsyn, a Russian judge at the tribunal, asked Greenpeace lawyer Daniel Simons whether the activists weren’t aware they were violating Russian laws since the group briefed them beforehand on the legal situation.

“We didn’t find any rules in Russian law that would have banned the activities,” said Simons, who testified as a witness for the Netherlands.

Russia’s decision not to appear in court today doesn’t prevent the judges from issuing a ruling, Lijnzaad said, citing international rules applying in such a case. A tentative ruling date was scheduled for Nov. 22 in the 22nd case since the tribunal’s inauguration in 1996.

Erecting Banner

“All of this simply because two of them put up a banner protesting oil drilling in the Arctic Sea,” Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace’s executive director, told reporters before the hearing. A year ago the group staged a similar action and Russia let it happen without intervening, he said.

On Oct. 1, activists delayed a Champions League soccer game between Basel and Germany’s Schalke 04, sponsored by OAO Gazprom, unfurling a protest banner. Demonstrations were staged outside Russian diplomatic missions and Gazprom offices in 30 countries, including Brazil, France and the U.S.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month that discussions about the ship had been held with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

Today’s case is: International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, Case No. 22.

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