So far, twelve people arrested in connection with the Greenpeace protest in the Pechora Sea have been granted bail. That is of course good news; I hope more follow. But the grim fact is that Russia is pressing on with its investigation into bogus charges against all 30 people associated with the protest. All of the “Arctic 30” should be immediately released from custody, and the state should drop the current charges against them.
The charges derive from an incident on September 18, when two Greenpeace activists aboard the group’s ship, the Arctic Sunrise, attempted to climb onto the outer structures of a drilling platform owned by the Russian state company Gazprom. The action was meant as a protest against oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, which they believe would endanger the region’s wildlife. Russian security forces boarded the ship at sea and arrested all 28 aboard, plus the two climbers.
The decision in early October by the Investigative Committee (the state agency in charge of criminal investigation)to press unjustifiable piracy charges – which carry a maximum 15-year prison sentence – against the Artic 30 prompted an outcry both within and beyond Russia. It raised real concerns that the aim of the case was not to uphold law and order but to bully critics.
Several weeks later, Russia’s Investigative Committee announced it had reclassified the charges to “hooliganism,” the same charge that was brought last year against the feminist punk group Pussy Riot for their 40-second political protest in a Moscow cathedral. The performance artist who nailed his scrotum to the pavement on Red Square on November 10 is also under investigation for hooliganism.
To be sure, it’s a lesser charge. But it is still distorted and disproportionate. Under Russian law, hooliganism is disorderly conduct, either motivated by hatred or committed through use of a weapon. I am not sure what the authorities will say were weapons (climbing ropes and hooks?) or whether they will allege the group incited hatred, and if so against whom (oil and gas entrepreneurs?). The Greenpeace activists are being charged with the harsher hooliganism article, which requires either conspiracy to commit disorderly conduct or resisting the authorities, although videos show the activists did not resist. If convicted, the Arctic 30 face up to seven years of imprisonment.
The use of hooligan charges against protesters is a logic we’ve come to expect from the Russian authorities. But it is not too late for the authorities to shatter our expectations, release all the Arctic 30 from custody, and drop the hooliganism charges against them.