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The Arctic 30: from activism to imprisonment

Arctic Sunrise vessel

The Arctic Sunrise vessel in Norway, in happier times. Tom Phillips under a Creative Commons Licence

Their ordeal started on 18 September.

Thirty Greenpeace activists had just left a Greenpeace campaigning ship, the Arctic Sunrise, in the waters of the Pechora Sea at 2.34am, and were headed towards an oil platform, the Prirazlomnaya, to climb onto the outside of the rig to protest against imminent drilling. This action had been part of a peaceful protest against energy giant Gazprom, the company that owns the Prirazlomnaya, and which is poised to drill for the first oil to come out of Arctic waters having just signed a massive deal with oil multinational Shell.

On seeing the activists in inflatable boats, the nearby Russian Coast Guard ship responded by launching inflatables manned with agents masked in balaclavas. They proceeded to ram and slash the Greenpeace boats, threaten those on board at gun and knife point and fire warning shots from automatic weapons.

The Coast Guard seized two activists who had managed to climb on to the rig before being forced to retreat by water cannons and several warning shots by hand guns, taking them aboard their vessel. The remaining activists returned to the Arctic Sunrise that stayed in the vicinity but no closer than 3 nautical miles to the Prirazlomnaya.

The following day, 19 September, the Russian Coast Guard illegally boarded the Arctic Sunrise, while in international waters. Those on board were held under armed guard for five days while the ship was towed to the port of Russia’s Arctic city Murmansk.

Twenty-eight Greenpeace activists, a photographer and a videographer appeared at a preliminary court hearing in Murmansk on 26 September. Most of them were remanded for two months without bail to await trail on possible piracy charges. Greenpeace lawyers have said that they will file a case with the European Court of Human Rights over the conditions faced by the activists in detainment.

Russian president Valdimar Putin has since said that he does not believe the team are pirates. Under Russian law, piracy requires an intention to seize a vessel, its crew or goods, and carries a maximum sentence of 15 years.

The Russian authorities hinted on 9 October that that these original charges of piracy may be dropped and replaced with charges of being in possession of ‘narcotic substances’ that have apparently been found on board. Greenpeace have said that all illegal drugs are prohibited on its ships and that the authorities must be referring to the medical supplies that the ships carry. Furthermore, as the vessel has been under Russian control for weeks now, the origin of any evidence of drugs discovered would be unclear.

On 9 October Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo wrote to President Putin offering to travel to Moscow to meet with him in an effort to end the detention of the 28 Greenpeace activists and the two freelance journalists.

In the letter, delivered to the Russian embassy in The Hague, Naidoo offered to move his life to Russia and act as a guarantor for the good conduct of the activists if they are released on bail. He said that Greenpeace makes no claim that its activists are ‘above the law’ and that a similar protest last year ‘was witnessed by the Russian coast guard, who refused to intervene when requested to by Gazprom because they understood that our actions posed no threat to the safety of people or property’.

The Greenpeace director also said of Putin that ‘you have previously said you have admiration for groups like Greenpeace, and that our protests inspire sympathy in you. Were our friends to be released on bail, I offer myself as security against the promise that the 28 Greenpeace International activists will answer for their peaceful protest according to the criminal code of Russia.’

'A day after the arrest of the activists, the UN issued its latest warning on the threat posed to all of us, to your nation, to mine, to the world, by climate change. The findings of the report, authored by our greatest scientific minds, imply that we cannot afford to prospect for and burn new sources of fossil fuels. That is why the protesters felt compelled to make the stand they did, a stand that was both peaceful and respectful of your nation’.

Since the detention of the Arctic 30, there have been demonstrations around the world in solidarity with the activists, calling for their release and the end to the repression of peaceful protest, as well as continuing the call for a permanent ban on Arctic off-shore oil drilling. Greenpeace International is campaigning against the Arctic oil rush – that companies including Shell, BP, Exxon, Gazprom and Rosneft hope to cash in on – due to the grave harm that it will cause to the Arctic environment, and the extraction of more oil that humanity cannot afford to burn.

See Greenpeace's chronology of events from 18 September to the latest update on the Arctic 30.

Sign the Greenpeace petition calling for the release of the Arctic 30 and a permanent ban on off-shore drilling in the Arctic.

Information supplied by Greenpeace International's Media Relations board.

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