Russia Charges Greenpeace Activists With Piracy

As threatened, Russia has lodged piracy charges against four environmental activists and a freelance British videographer for their parts in a Sept. 18 protest at an offshore oil rig in the Russian Arctic. Those charged were among 30 people who were detained aboard the Greenpeace vessel "Arctic Sunrise" after two activists tried to climb aboard the rig.

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Russian prosecutors have filed charges of piracy against 14 people who were aboard a Greenpeace boat during a protest last month in the Russian Arctic. Under Russian law, piracy is punishable by as much as 15 years in prison. Greenpeace says it was peacefully protesting the dangers of oil drilling in the Arctic and that the Russian government is violating international law.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The people charged with piracy today range from environmental activists to journalists who were on the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise to cover the September 18th protest. Earlier this week, Vladimir Markov, a spokesman for Russia's powerful Investigative Committee, laid out the accusations against Greenpeace.

VLADIMIR MARKOV: (Speaking in Russian)

FLINTOFF: Markov says the Greenpeace activists sent boats into the safe zone surrounding the rig and attempted to climb aboard. He added that the activists tried to ram the Russian border guards' inflatable rafts with their rafts. Russian officials have insisted that the Greenpeace protest endangered the lives of people aboard the platform and the border guards who tried to protect them.

Eugene Kontorovich, a professor of law at Northwestern University, says nothing the activists did meets the legal definition of piracy. Kontorovich, an expert on piracy law, says the first requirement for piracy is that it must involve an attack by one ship upon another ship.

EUGENE KONTOROVICH: And Greenpeace, they were on a ship, but the target was an oil rig, which is not a ship. So actions against oil rigs do not qualify as piracy.

FLINTOFF: Secondly, and more importantly, Kontorovich says, piracy must involve violence, and what Greenpeace did, unfurling a protest banner on the side of the oil rig, did not constitute violence. Phil Radford, the executive director of Greenpeace USA, says film taken by the Russian military shows that the activists never responded with violence, either during the initial encounter at the oil rig or later when the Greenpeace ship was seized at gunpoint. Radford said he believes the Russians charged Greenpeace activists with piracy because it was the only way to justify seizing their ship.

PHIL RADFORD: And that's illegal to do that in international waters. The only way you can justify that is by accusing us of being pirates because that gives militaries the right to arrest people anywhere in the world.

FLINTOFF: Professor Kontorovich notes that the oil rig is not in Russia's territorial waters, rather it's in its exclusive economic zone, where it does not have the right to interfere with the navigation of other nations' vessels. Radford says that the Greenpeace activists climbed onto the oil platform to draw world attention to what they say is an environmental disaster in the making. He says the climbers are willing to take responsibility for their action, but that Russia is the one that has violated international law. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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