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‘Arctic 30’ far from out of Russian woods

Accusations of ‘hooliganism’ may sound like a slap on the wrist for the Greenpeace activists but the ‘peaceful protest’ may cost them much more than what they bargained for
It has been almost six weeks since the protest took place against Gazprom's Arctic Drilling on September 18, both parties are seeking a swift solution, but it may not be a mutually favourable one (Photo: Greenpeace)

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On October 23, the charges’ against the ‘Arctic 30’ were allegedly lessened from ‘piracy’ to ‘hooliganism. The development inspired hope that the group of 30 Greenpeace activists, detained after trying to board a Gazprom oil rig in the Arctic Ocean, may eventually be acquitted, but newly raised concerns suggest that the activists could serve time.

While hooliganism in Europe is more associated with football violence than environmental protests, William Butler, a professor of law and international affairs at Pennsylvania State University and editor of various Russian law journals, the Russian definition varied slightly.

“It is defined as ‘a flagrant violation of public order expressed by a clear disrespect of society”, he said, adding that it was one of the most common crimes committed in Russia, and was “seriously prosecuted”.

SEE RELATED: Greenpeace activists threatened with prosecution

The efforts to board the oil rig on September 18 and stop it from drilling, from a factual perspective, warrant the allegations, according to Butler. 

“The activists boarded someone else’s property,” he said. “They intended to make a public display of their views, they committed the act via prior collusion and they are an organised group. Judging from the actions that the activists took, the likelihood of a conviction for ‘hooliganism’ is probably very substantial.”

Peter Maggs, a professor of law at the University of Illinois and an expert in the laws of Russia and the former Soviet Republics, said Russia substantially toughened its hooliganism laws in 2011 “to provide an excuse for severely punishing demonstrators who complained of such things as rigged elections and rigged trials”.

While Bulter recognised that Greenpeace had a long history of organised protest, he questioned whether it had “done its homework on Russian law” before attempting to board the oil rig.

“If they went into this without doing any [research] then they have put themselves at considerable risk,” he said.

The thin green line
Aside from accusations of hooliganism, which could see the activists serve a maximum of seven years in prison, there may be additional legal complications. 

Greenpeace spokespeople have repeatedly stated that the Arctic Sunrise, the Greenpeace vessel that transported the activists to the Arctic Ocean before they boarded rubber rafts for the actual boarding effort, did not violate economic or safety exclusion zones during the protest. 

Butler however, said that if the ship did then there may be a question as to whether there was a violation of continental shelf legislation rather than hooliganism.

“If [the Arctic Sunrise] was within 500 meters of the rig, then it was in violation of the safety zone that exists around any rig that is attached to the continental shelf,” he said.

SEE RELATED: Russia, Greenpeace meet face-to-face

Gemma Andreone, a professor of international law from the Naples-based International Institute of Law Studies, agreed but said “the convention does not specify which kind of powers coastal states can adopt in cases of non-compliance of third state vessels with the international norms”.

Because of the uncertainty over Russia’s right to arrest the protestors, the Netherlands, where the Arctic Sunrise is registered, brought the matter before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. 

The Netherlands demands that Moscow releases the vessel and crew, but Russia has already said it will not take part in the November 6 proceedings.

“The major issue [regarding the Law of the Sea] is to ascertain if Russia can legitimately prosecute them for exercising its judicial powers against the vessel and the crew seized in its exclusive economic zone,” Andreone said.

Who will pay the biggest price?
Russian officials have indicated that they “are ready to seek a mutually acceptable solution to this situation”. 

Maggs said that was a wise decision and that the country should consider its future diplomatic relationships with other nations. Any decision should, in his mind, be “influenced heavily by its estimate of possible international and domestic reaction.”

“Russia built up a lot of good will with its role in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons,” he said. “If [Russia] is smart it won’t destroy this goodwill by harsh punishment.”

SEE RELATED: Interview with an activist: Saving the Arctic, one oil company at a time

The Russian criminal justice system usually works quite quickly, and Maggs estimated that it may take approximately a month for a trial date to be set, but stressed it was difficult to determine processing time.

“Recently the Russian government has held some individuals involved in anti-government demonstrations for over a year pending trial,” he said.

Even though it is not possible to predict what the outcome of the trial will be, Butler said the activists may be able to plea bargain their way to a lesser sentence. Depending on their level of involvement in the protest, activists may individually acknowledge their guilt and negotiate a lesser sentence.