ISLESBORO, Maine — An Islesboro man is among 30 Greenpeace activists and freelance journalists being held in a Russian jail after what Greenpeace says was a “peaceful Arctic oil protest.” Russian officials labeled the incident an act of piracy.
Peter Willcox, captain of the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise, is among those being held, according to Jon Hinck, a former state representative from Portland and co-founder of Greenpeace USA.
Maggy Willcox, Peter Willcox’s wife, said from Islesboro on Friday that she hasn’t heard from her husband since Wednesday, Sept. 18, when he and 29 other people on the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise were taken into custody at gunpoint.
On Thursday, members of the group known as the “Arctic 30” were ordered held in custody in Russia. Eight are being held pending a new hearing and 22 people, including Willcox, will remain incarcerated in Russia for two months as an investigation into “piracy” charges continues, Greenpeace said.
According to a Greenpeace report, protesters in four inflatable boats launched from the Arctic Sunrise were seized on Sept. 18 when they attempted to climb onto the platform of an oil rig owned by the Russian government-operated corporation Gazprom in the Arctic Sea.
Russian Coast Guard boats “manned with agents masked in balaclavas” responded, according to Greenpeace, and “they proceed[ed] to ram and slash the Greenpeace inflatables, threaten activists at gun and knife point and fire warning shots from automatic weapons.” Two protesters were taken into custody.
The following day, Russian agents descended onto the Arctic Sun — which was in international waters, according to reports — from a helicopter and took the remaining activists into custody, Greenpeace said.
Maggy Willcox said a final Tweet from the crew said that “the Russians have boarded, they have the crew on their knees on the deck with guns at their heads.”
The Greenpeace website shows photos and video claiming to be from the incidents.
Officials from the U.S. embassy in St. Petersburg were able to see the prisoners, Maggy Willcox said, and on Thursday she watched a live feed on YouTube from the courtroom as her husband appeared before a judge. And then, she said, she saw a series of pictures that set her mind at ease.
“One in particular, on the Greenpeace website, showed Peter being escorted by the Russians down the hall in handcuffs. There’s this wicked little grin on his face. When I saw that, my whole attitude took a 180-degree turn,” she said, crying. “I knew he was OK. That’s all I needed to know.”
On Friday, Hinck said he has sailed on Greenpeace boats with Willcox and been involved in “actions” undertaken by the organization.
“He’s a pretty good man,” Hinck said, adding that the captain has gained respect for his skills as a captain and his strategic thinking — “how steely he [is] in dicey situations.”
Willcox was captain of the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior when it sailed in 1983 into Siberia and seven activists were seized by the Soviet government. Hinck said Willcox sailed the ship from the area, “being chased by a Soviet battleship, a merchant vessel and a helicopter,” and managed to get film of the incident to the U.S. government.
The seven seized activists were eventually released when ships from both countries met on the International Dateline, according to Hinck.
Willcox was also the captain of the Rainbow Warrior when it was bombed the night after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Greenpeace said.
According to Russian and international news agency RIA Novosti, Russian laws state that piracy is punishable with up to 15 years in prison.
Willcox is the only American being held, although another prisoner claims dual U.S. and Swedish citizenship. Others are from 13 countries around the world.
Eight of the 30 are being held for three days awaiting a hearing, and 22 are being held for two months as Russian officials investigate piracy charges, Greenpeace said Friday.
Greenpeace International said it would appeal Russian court rulings, and Maggy Willcox said Greenpeace has assembled “a crack legal team” who are working on appeals.
She’s been in touch with the congressional delegations from Maine and Connecticut, and with the state department, but she’s not sure what actions are being taken. And she is encouraged that Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he does not think the protesters are pirates.
Hinck said he worries that Willcox will be involved in a drama similar to when activists were seized years ago, but Maggy Willcox said she can’t see Putin allowing the situation to develop into a major international incident.
“I can’t see him letting this get out of hand,” she said. “They may well keep the Arctic Sunrise … but personally I don’t care as long as my husband gets home .. I truly believe it’s just a matter of time. It’s just a question of how long.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story requires correction. Maggy Willcox last spoke to her husband on Wednesday, Sept. 18, not Wednesday, Sept. 25. Peter Willcox and the other protesters were in court on Thursday, not Friday.