MOSCOW — On Oct. 3, when I visited the Moscow headquarters of Greenpeace, the organization's office was buzzing with anxious staffers and friends. The activists were shocked, their faces drawn and nervous. They had spent hours at meetings with the Kremlin's administration and the Federal Security Service (FSB) looking for some solution to their problems. Earlier that day, a Russian criminal court had issued prison sentences to 16 more Greenpeace employees and sympathizers, on top of the 14 activists sentenced the day before. The charge: piracy.
The Greenpeace members I spoke to have endured years of official pressure and threats in their long struggle to prevent oil spills and other natural disasters. There have been many occasions when Greenpeace ecologists have found themselves confronting the FSB, the successor to the old Soviet KGB. But 15-year jail terms as punishment for environmental activism? The news was a bombshell.
In fact, the protest itself was innocuous. On Sept. 18, the Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise, anchored a few hundred yards away from Gazprom's Prirazlomnaya oil platform, a 100,000-ton metal giant sitting 60 kilometers off the coast in the icy Pechora Sea. A few unarmed activists (one of them, the Russian journalist Denis Senyakov, equipped only with a camera) approached the platform on two inflatable boats. Then, two of the activists used rock-climbing equipment to climb up the rig's wall in an attempt to raise a protest banner. "They were later accused of threatening the security of the rig," noted Vladimir Chuprov, the head of Greenpeace's energy department in Moscow. "But why is the rig out there in the ocean if it can be threatened by two guys with ropes?"
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The activists were soon stopped. Russian Coast Guardsmen in balaclavas pointed guns at the activists and fired warning shots; water cannons on the top of the rig loosed torrents of water at the Greenpeace men. The next day, a helicopter arrived, and security forces soon detained the rest of the Arctic Sunrise crew. Putin later expressed regrets that he never had a chance to sit down with Greenpeace to hear about "their complaints, demands, and concerns." However, he explained that Russian security forces did know the identities of the people who were storming the platform. "It is absolutely evident, that they are, of course, not pirates," he continued. "But formally they were trying to seize this platform. It is evident that these people violated international law."
Greenpeace is indignant and has called the FSB's decision an extreme overreaction. "The Arctic is melting before our eyes and these brave activists stand in defiance of those who wish to exploit this unfolding crisis to drill for more oil," read the statement on the group's website. "Greenpeace International insists that piracy charges are unjustified, and that Russian authorities boarded the Arctic Sunrise illegally in international waters. Several international legal experts have supported that view."
The Russian Greenpeace employees wondered how President Vladimir Putin could possibly allow the draconian punishment of environmental protesters, especially since Greenpeace has performed exactly the same protests in many countries over the years, including Greenland, New Zealand, the Netherlands -- even, just a year ago, in Russia itself. Such activism has generally been recognized as free expression; until this past week, no government has ever sentenced environmentalist protestors on piracy charges. I watched as the activists in the Moscow headquarters browsed through pictures of their 30 arrested colleagues, all of whom have received two months of pretrial detention: citizens of Finland, Ukraine, Britain, the Netherlands, the United States, and 13 other countries. It seemed that citizens representing half the world were locked behind bars in Murmansk.