The captain of a Greenpeace ship released on bail after two months of detention in a Russian prison following an Arctic protest said he and his fellow activists remain in shock at their treatment.
American Peter Willcox, who was also in charge of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior when it was sunk in Auckland in 1985 by a bomb planted by the French intelligence service, said the organization again found itself in the crosshairs of a government bent on throttling the environmental group.
“There is a similarity between the two cases,” with both the French and Russian governments targeting Greenpeace to prevent it from carrying out its campaigns, Willcox said by phone yesterday from St. Petersburg. In New Zealand, “the loss of life was the most difficult thing for us to deal with and it just doesn’t get any worse than that. Though I have to admit that this, for the people involved, was quite trying.”
Russia has faced worldwide protests and was ordered on Nov. 22 by a United Nations court to release the Arctic Sunrise and the crew after impounding Greenpeace’s ship and initially charging the 30 campaigners with piracy, which is punishable by as much as 15 years in prison. Prosecutors since cut the charges to hooliganism, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years.
In July 1985, agents from France’s DGSE intelligence agency planted a bomb on the Rainbow Warrior in the port of Auckland to prevent it from sailing toward a nuclear-testing site, killing a photographer on board.
“This time it was almost equally as emotional,” Willcox said.
Russia detained 30 people from 18 countries -- 28 activists and two journalists -- for participating in a protest at an OAO Gazprom offshore oil platform in September after storming the Greenpeace ship and towing it to the port of Murmansk.
“Here in international waters off Russia, we were doing what we’ve done before and expected nothing like this -- and so when we got towed into Murmansk, we were absolutely shocked that they charged us with piracy, it was something that we had never considered,” he said. The “uncertainty” of not knowing if they faced lengthy prison terms and their isolation from the outside world was the most difficult thing, he added.
President Vladimir Putin said in September that while the Greenpeace activists “clearly” aren’t pirates, they violated international law by trying to seize a drilling platform. The action alarmed Russian officials, who couldn’t be certain who was trying to board the rig, Putin said.
Speaking Nov. 22 in St. Petersburg, Putin said Russia’s political leadership didn’t want to meddle in the case and has no interest in “worsening anything or extending anyone’s detention on purpose.”
While Willcox said he was grateful to Putin for his release on bail, the activist said he doesn’t believe the Russian leader played any role in the arrest and prosecution of the Greenpeace campaigners.
“I did always feel that he was not the problem, he was observing and watching the situation,” Willcox said. “I didn’t feel like he was the instigator of it.”
The jailed activists include citizens of the U.S., Finland, Argentina, Switzerland, the U.K., Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Ukraine, Russia, France, Italy, Turkey, Poland and Sweden, according to Greenpeace.
After the detainees were transferred to St. Petersburg this month, easing consular access, courts in the city last week granted bail to 29 of them. Australian Colin Russell had his detention extended by three months in the first bail hearing for a foreigner. Greenpeace believes that ruling was a “mistake” and will appeal it, spokeswoman Jessica Wilson said by e-mail.
“Because we’re out, everybody is quite optimistic about the future, compared to a week ago,” Willcox said.
Asked if he would carry out further protests in Russia, the Arctic Sunrise captain said that would be a tough decision to make.
“I’m not saying I am going to be back next year and doing the same thing over again,” he said. “This has been hard and I don’t want to put my family through this again.”