MOSCOW – A group of 30 activists and journalists aboard the Greenpeace International vessel Arctic Sunrise were taken into custody by Russian authorities on Sept. 19 after a protest against the offshore Gazprom oil platform Prirazlomnaya. Although the initial piracy charges against the group, now being called the “Arctic 30,” have been reduced to hooliganism, all of its members continue to be held in the northern Russian city of Murmansk and risk prison sentences of up to seven years.
Two of the activists had attempted to climb the oil platform on Sept. 18 with the goal of unfurling a protest banner, but were countered with high-pressure streams from fire hoses; after being pushed into the ocean, they were detained by a Russian coast guard vessel as “guests.” Authorities stormed the Greenpeace ship itself on the following day. A message from the ship’s Twitter account described the boarding as “pretty terrifying. Loud banging. Screaming in Russian. They’re still trying to kick in the door.” The Arctic Sunrise was then towed to the Russian coast.
Greenpeace sent its ship to the Arctic Sea to protest the potential environmental damage due to the exploitation of the Prirazlomnoye oil field, roughly 60 kilometers offshore from the nearest settlement on the Russian coast. Although remote for humans, the area is home to a unique array of wildlife, including polar bears, narwhals, and walruses. Scientists argue that due to the region’s inaccessibility and temperature, an oil spill would be nearly impossible to clean. According to Igor Chestin, chief executive of the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Federation, “Not a single oil company currently has the technology to deal with an oil spill under the ice. Some of them know how to collect oil from the surface of the water, or from the surface of the ice, which is like land. But under the ice? There are no technologies which can deal with that, and that means that the oil can spread over the place.”
Russian officials have indicated that the development of Arctic resources is a key part of the country’s future economic growth. As global climate change continues to melt ice in the region, the Arctic has become more accessible to the shipping vessels that carry its oil and natural gas reserves to market. In addition to its economic development, Russia has begun to reestablish a military presence at a Soviet-era base in the region.
International pressure has been mounting over recent weeks for the release of the Arctic 30. Frans Timmerman, the foreign minister of the Netherlands (the flag country of the Arctic Sunrise), stated to the BBC that “I don’t understand why this could be thought to have anything to do with piracy; I don’t see how you could think of any legal grounds for that.” A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also expressed hope that “this case will soon be resolved.” However, Russian legal action continues to proceed against the group.