ISLESBORO, Maine — A Greenpeace ship captain with Maine ties was among the 30 activists granted amnesty Wednesday by the Russian parliament after two months of imprisonment, although they are not yet allowed to leave the country.
Peter Willcox, captain of the Arctic Sunrise, and others aboard the ship were taken prisoner at gun and knife point on Sept. 18 in the Arctic Sea. The military action followed an attempt by some of the activists to climb onto the platform of an oil rig owned by the Russian government-operated corporation Gazprom.
“I’m just thrilled,” Willcox’s cousin Steve Cartwright of Waldoboro said Thursday. “Peter is someone I admire for his unselfish courage, idealism and a great sense of humor that helps him through tough times. … He’s someone who lives his beliefs. I think we would all do well to think about the risk he takes on behalf of a sustainable planet.”
Willcox and the other 29 environmental activists and journalists from 18 countries initially were charged with piracy, punishable by as much as 15 years in prison in Russia. However, after worldwide protests, prosecutors there cut the charges to hooliganism, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years. The captain, the only American in the group, spent two months in a Russian prison before being released on bail in late November. He remains in St. Petersburg, where his wife, Maggy Willcox recently joined him, although Russian officials have not returned his passport yet, according to Jon Hinck of Portland.
According to Greenpeace, accepting the amnesty means the activists will not be admitting guilt and the legal proceedings against them will come to an end.
Hinck, a former state representative who helped found Greenpeace USA in 1979, said that he understands Russian prison officials still must process the parliament’s decision before formally releasing the prisoners. He said he believes the country’s decision to grant amnesty to the “Arctic 30,” and free two members of the jailed protest group Pussy Riot and other political prisoners is a political move — though a welcome one.
“I think this amnesty vote came about because of the coming opening ceremonies of the Olympics,” he said. “I think they definitely wanted to release as many of those as they could that have come to international attention.”
It is not the first time Willcox has faced international governmental pressure in his work for Greenpeace. He was in charge of the organization’s ship Rainbow Warrior when it was sunk in Auckland in 1985 by a bomb planted by the French intelligence service. In a press release issued Wednesday by Greenpeace, the captain said that he and the others should never have been charged and jailed.
“We sailed north to bear witness to a profound environmental threat but our ship was stormed by masked men wielding knives and guns,” he said. “We may soon be truly free, but there’s no amnesty for the Arctic. We may soon be home, but the Arctic remains a fragile global treasure under assault by oil companies and the rising temperatures they’re driving.”
In an emotional interview with the BDN in September, Maggy Willcox, publisher of the Islesboro Island News, said she believed it was just a matter of time until her husband returned home.
Peter Willcox and the others are in good company this week, as President Vladimir Putin is to pardon one of his best known opponents, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Putin made the surprise announcement that he soon would free Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, after a marathon news conference on Thursday in which he exuded confidence that he has reasserted his authority in the face of street protests.
Khodorkovsky, 50, fell out spectacularly with Putin a decade ago. His company, Yukos, was broken up and sold off, mainly into state hands, after his arrest at gunpoint on an airport runway in Siberia on fraud and tax evasion charges in 2003.
On Thursday, Putin said that Khodorkovsky already had spent 10 years in jail, his mother was ill and that the prisoner had asked for clemency. In the eyes of critics at home and abroad, Khodorkovsky’s jailing is a significant stain on the record of Putin, who first was elected president in 2000 and has not ruled out seeking another six-year term in 2018.
A government source said the pardons would deprive Western critics of a cause: “I think the decision to free Pussy Riot and Khodorkovsky was taken just before the Olympic Games so that they will not be able to wield this banner against Putin.”
On a website supporting Khodorkovsky, a man named Igor commented: “It was simply beneficial for Putin to make a show of ‘mercy’ before the Olympics in order to avoid a huge world scandal.”
Additional reporting contributed by Reuters writers Alexei Anishchuk and Timothy Heritage.