MOSCOW — Russia charged Greenpeace activists with piracy on Wednesday over a demonstration last month against Arctic oil drilling, a charge that could bring long prison terms for a protest in a region the Kremlin sees as a key to future prosperity.
The federal Investigative Committee said authorities had begun charging the 30 people from 18 countries — including a man with ties to Islesboro, Maine — arrested after two Greenpeace activists tried to scale the Prirazlomnaya oil platform, which plays a crucial role in Russia’s effort to mine Arctic resources.
By evening, 14 people had been charged with piracy, Greenpeace said, including activists and icebreaking ship crew members from Argentina, Britain, Finland, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia and Ukraine, as well as a dual U.S.-Swedish citizen and a British videographer who documented the protest.
Not believed to among them, but expected to be charged, was Peter Willcox, captain of the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise. Willcox is married to Maggy Willcox, who works on Islesboro.
“He’s not among the 14 to my knowledge but I think that it’s fairly certain that he, being captain, is going to be held as responsible as everyone else. They’re going for a group conspiracy to commit piracy charge is what my understanding is, so they’re going after the whole group,” said Maggy Willcox, who said she has not heard from her husband since Sept. 18, when he and 29 others on the Arctic Sunrise were taken into custody at gunpoint.
Willcox said that her chief source of information about her husband’s ordeal has been the consulate in St. Petersburg. “He’s been really good. He’s been the one person who’s actually seen my husband face-to-face so I really love talking to him,” she said.
Aside from the fact that her husband, who has been with Greenpeace for more than three decades, has been detained for several weeks with no charges, his physical treatment has been “fine. What the guy from the embassy told me is that the local people are really being kind to them,” she said.
Jon Hinck, a former state representative from Portland and co-founder of Greenpeace USA, also said he believes Willcox will be charged.
“There was no attempt to take or damage the oil rig so it’s just punishment of protest and we know that instinct, if you don’t consider civil disobedience as a valid way to reform policy, then the instinct maybe is to come down hard on people but you still have to examine what the crime is and what the motive is before throwing the law at people so the piracy charge is not credible,” Hinck said.
Greenpeace said the piracy charge, which carries a jail term of up to 15 years, was absurd. The organization last week called the incident that led to the charges as a “peaceful Arctic oil protest.”
“It is an extreme and disproportionate charge,” said Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo.
“A charge of piracy is being laid against men and women whose only crime is to be possessed of a conscience. This is an outrage and represents nothing less than an assault on the very principle of peaceful protest.”
“It’s a little disturbing. [Greenpeace has] some history with regard to the Soviet Union, at least twice and officials got involved and the treatment for a period of time was different from what Russians are showing [after the Soviet Union’s collapse].
“That was the Soviet Union, an unabashed totalitarian state and the Russians try to present themselves as an emerging democracy or something but they way they’re treating this group here and the [Russian] punk band Pussy Riot [suggests otherwise],” Hinck said.
Members of the protest band were convicted of hooliganism for performing a provocative “punk prayer” denouncing Vladimir Putin — who was returning to the Russian presidency — in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral in 2012, according to published reports.
Talking tough, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said concern for the environment did not justify breaking the law.
“Concern for the environment must not be a cloak for illegal actions, no matter how high-minded the principles motivating participants,” he said at a meeting on offshore oil extraction in the Caspian Sea in the southern city of Astrakhan.
A court in the northern city of Murmansk, a port city north of the Arctic Circle, last week ordered all 30 people who had been aboard the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise to be held in custody for two months pending further investigation.
The environmental group said the protest at the platform owned by state-controlled energy company Gazprom was peaceful and posed no threat, and that piracy charges have no merit in international or Russian law.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf confirmed that a U.S. citizen named Dimitri Litvinov was among those charged with piracy. She said Washington understood that a second detained U.S. citizen has not been charged.
BDN writer Dawn Gagnon and Reuters writer Steve Gutterman contributed to this report.