LONDON // Pressure mounted on Russia on Friday to free Greenpeace activists charged with piracy as the Netherlands took legal action and the environmental group called for international protests.
Twenty-eight activists, along with a British and a Russian journalist, were arrested after attempting to board Russia’s first off-shore Arctic oil platform, Prirazlomnaya, in the Pechora Sea.
The platform is operated by the Russian-government controlled Gazprom, one of the world’s largest energy companies.
The Netherlands on Friday launched legal action to free the activists, whose vessel, Arctic Sunrise, was sailing under a Dutch flag.
“The Netherlands today began an arbitration procedure on the basis of the (United Nations) Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Frans Timmermans, the Dutch foreign minister, said.
Before the move by the Dutch, Greenpeace announced plans to hold protests outside Russian embassies and consulates across the globe on Saturday to the charges against its activists.
The group has called the charges an “outrage” designed to “intimidate and silence”.
“A charge of piracy is being laid against men and women whose only crime is to be possessed of a conscience,” said Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace’s executive director on Thursday.
“This is an outrage and represents nothing less than an assault on the very principle of peaceful protest. Any claim that these activists are pirates is as absurd as it is abominable.”
Russian prosecutors say the Greenpeace action, which saw activists leave the Arctic Sunrise on inflatable dinghies and attempt to climb the oil rig, posed a “real threat” to the safety of staff on the rig.
But experts say charges of piracy fly in the face of international law.
The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea considers piracy “an illegal act of violence committed, for private ends, from a private ship or aircraft… directed against another ship or aircraft on the high seas (or occurring in a place outside the jurisdiction of any state).”
As the Greenpeace action was targeting an oil platform within an exclusive economic zone under Russian jurisdiction, at least two of those conditions are unfulfilled whether or not the action itself was considered an act of violence, said Douglas Guilfoyle, a reader in international law at University College London.
And on that point, while, “you could accuse the protestors of trespass, but I think you’d have a difficult time saying their actions were overtly violent,” Mr Guilfoyle added.
The 28 activists from 18 different countries along with one British and one Russian freelance journalist have been detained in Murmansk in north-west Russia near the border with Finland since September 18.
And piracy charges could set a worrying precedent, said Mr Guilfoyle.
“There is absolutely always a risk that piracy can be used as an emotive term applied to a state’s political opponents.
“The risk is that it undermines the seriousness of piracy as a violent offence that endangers the safety of navigation on the high seas.”
Even Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has said the Greenpeace activists were “obviously not pirates”, but they did violate international law.
Piracy has become a growing issue of concern around the world in recent years, not least off the Arabian Peninsula, where the dramatic expansion of Somali piracy since 2005 have caused fears of disruption to the international oil trade.
Russia is part of the multi-national coalition that established the Maritime Security Patrol Area within the Gulf of Aden to combat piracy in the area.
Mr Guilfoyle said Russia would likely pursue the charges against what Greenpeace are calling the Arctic 30 under Russian law, where countries often postulate a more expansive definition of piracy.
Should an international challenge be made, however, that would be under international law.
With its legal action, the Netherlands could seek the immediate release of crew and vessel on bond, though it would be unlikely that they would be allowed to leave Russia before trial.
Thursday, William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, said the UK would “remain in close contact with all other nations whose citizens are involved and make representations as necessary”.
Six of the detainees are from the UK.