Deprivation of liberty is more serious than Arctic drilling

The following is an opinion piece. It does not necessarily reflect the views of Kieron's family or any of his supporters.

Forget about the cause, let's worry about justice.

Oliver Sinden

I am usually slightly indifferent to Greenpeace. They have always struck me as being slightly too far towards 'militant' on the sliding scale of activist group behaviours. Whilst clearly passionate and dedicated, sometimes they push the boundaries of peaceful demonstration a little too far for me. The current situation with the Arctic Sunrise is not the first time a Greenpeace vessel has been involved in a conflict with a national government - the Rainbow Warrior was sunk by the French secret service in 1985, due to action to prevent nuclear testing in the Pacific. A freelance photographer, Fernando Pereira, was killed. The French government eventually admitted responsibility and the defence minister resigned.

At the moment, it does not appear that the Russian government have any intention of retreating from its hardline stance, a position which has nothing to do with environmental issues. The recent Greenpeace action which started this bizarre situation rolling was an attempted carbon copy of a protest as the same oil platform just over a year ago. The video shows workers on the platform halfheartedly attempting to dislodge the climbers with water hoses. No boats are launched to intercept the activists. After a few hours hanging off the side dangling banners, they descend and return to the Arctic Sunrise. This did not make international news.

One cannot imagine the Russians had any belief that this year's action would be any different. Greenpeace had been informing the Russian coastguard of their intended movements. In August, they announced their intention to enter the Northern Passage without Russian permission. ( (The oil platform in question, Prirazlomnaya, does not lie in this area). Peter Willcox, the American captain of the Arctic Sunrise, then steered his vessel towards the oil platform.

What happened next has been well documented. Video from the oil rig ( is to my mind slightly more revealing than the carefully edited content released by Greenpeace. At one point, a Greenpeace inflatable collides with a Russian FSB boat, though it is difficult to tell is this is a deliberate ramming or simply a loss of control in the rough seas. This is not the first time Greenpeace vessels have arguably got closer than necessary to other boats. The Arctic Sunrise itself has been involved in a ramming controversy: . Both ships claim to have been rammed by the other.

It is difficult, however, to watch the footage of the capture of the two activists without feeling that the FSB response was a little heavy-handed. The pointing and discharging and firearms does seem a little out of proportion to the offence. It is equally difficult to ascribe complete innocence to Greenpeace. Climbing an oil rig is clearly an illegal act, regardless of intent. But that intent surely became clear once the climbers were in Russian custody. Carrying only a banner and climbing gear, it must have been evident that they were not attempting to take control of the oil platform.

The next development is the real concern. Seizing a ship on the high seas is an act of very dubious legality. The Arctic Sunrise flies under the Dutch flag. (Greenpeace's headquarters is in Amsterdam.) In the days after the security forces took control of the ship, the Dutch government asked Russia to explain its actions. ( No further news has been forthcoming on this issue. I find this intriguing as no nation is above international maritime law, which is the only law that applies if the ship was in international waters, as Greenpeace contend. 

Finally we got some news when the Greenpeace twitter account began to post updates once the ship arrived in Murmansk, buried among the endless and slightly irritating stream of environmental propaganda. The detention without bail for two months was shocking in itself. I was reminded of the furore when David Davies MP resigned in protest about UK legislation to increase the period of detention without charge of terror suspects (terror suspects) to 42 days from 28. In Russia, apparently two months doesn't raise similar questions from politicians.

Then, today, the piracy charge was announced. For some reason Kieron was one of the first to be charged. Reading that news was not a good way to start the day. All 30 were eventually charged. I cannot imagine what evidence exists to support the charge. If there are firearms, beyond distress flares, aboard the Arctic Sunrise, I will be very surprised. Then there is the question of the charge itself - can you be guilty of piracy of an oil platform? Some experts believe not: Eugene Kontorovich says

"First, piracy requires an attack against a “ship.” The Greenpeace incident involved an oil rig, which is not a ship because it is not navigable. (The 1988 SUA Convention dealing with maritime violence beyond piracy required a separate protocol to apply to oil platforms). "

Pirates do not carry banners and sail around with rainbows painted on their ships. They have guns and explosives. They operate off the coast of East Africa or in the Strait of Malacca. They do not target oil platforms. It is hard to deny that two activists are certainly guilty of trespass, and a small number more of breaching the 500 metre security zone around the rig. Piracy is a serious, unlikely and bizarre charge to lay.

Is this all part of a long-term strategy to harden Russia's position against protestors and dissenters in general?  The recent Pussy Riot case would seem to back this up. Controversial anti-gay legislation  has also drawn criticism, especially with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi approaching. George Takei, the actor who played Sulu in Star Trek, is campaigning to move the Games to another country ( . Kieron and the other 29 might be being used to send a message to would-be protestors, but the increasingly high profile of this case, and the mix of nationalities involved makes this a dangerous tactic. We have to hope that the possibility of seventeen different ambassadors queueing up outside the Kremlin, and the global coverage of this case is enough to persuade the Murmansk court to acquit.