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Russia bares its teeth in the Arctic

Greenpeace has tried more than once to scale Russian oil platforms. This time, however, the authorities were ready for them. Critics call the charges 'disproportionate' at best and 'incredibly absurd' at worst.

"Incredibly absurd" is how Caroline von Gall describes the charges against 30 Greenpeace members in a court case that began Thursday in Murmansk, Russia (26.09.2013).

Von Gall is a professor at the Institute of European Law at the University of Cologne and a respected authority on the Russian legal system.

"The piracy paragraph envisages that the whole [group] would be on a ship," she told DW. In addition, Greenpeace members would have to be accused of attempting "the appropriation or possession of property."

Finally, there is a third condition. In order to charge the activists with piracy under Russian law, "The act must have occurred through violence or the threat thereof," she said, something that clearly is not in accordance with the facts of the case.

Finding a platform

Greenpeace's action took place in mid-September. Via speedboat, two activists attempted to climb aboard an oil platform. One day later, a scene straight out of a James Bond film took place.

Russian special forces rappelled from helicopters onto the Dutch Greenpeace ship "Arctic Sunrise." The icebreaker was seized and taken to the harbor city of Murmansk. Its crew was taken into custody and charged with piracy.

The platform is operated by Russian energy concern Gazprom, which has been drilling for oil in the area since 2011. Russia has estimated the site to contain 70 million tons of crude. Greenpeace wants drilling there to cease.

A large green ship floating in dark ocean water has a brightly-colored rainbow streaking up its bow into the shape of a dove.

Greenpeace's Arctic Sunrise vessel has been impounded by the Russian authorities

Disproportionate charges

Christoph Van Lieven of Greenpeace's German chapter sees problems with the accusations. The Dutch ship, Arctic Sunrise, granted, was in Russia's exclusive economic zone, he told DW, but remained in international waters. He finds the charges against the Greenpeace members disproportionate and designed to "deter and make an example of" Greenpeace and other groups.

At the offices of the NGO, Bellona Climate, in St. Petersburg, project leader Ksenija Vachruscheva also criticized the proceedings. "They're trying to accuse them of crimes they didn't commit, she told DW, adding, too, that the charges were disproportionate.

Even Russian President Vladimir Putin has distanced himself from those authorities responsible for charging the Greenpeace activists. Climate defenders are "not pirates," he said at an international Arctic conference in the north Russian city of Salechard on Wednesday. The Russian president did, however, accuse activists of having broken international law and placing workers on the oil platform in danger.

On stage, a caucasian politician in a business suit speaks into the microphone of a podium in front of a blue backdrop. (Photo: Alexey Druzhinin)

Putin's words were welcomed at the conference, but will they affect the outcome of the trial?

Putin's sentiments have been echoed by others in Russia. The "Prirazlomnaya" platform is particularly dangerous, said maritime expert Michail Voitenjko in an interview with Doschd, an online television provider in Russia. Greenpeace, he said, intentionally attempted to provoke a dangerous situation by targeting that platform.

Not the last?

Whether or not any of the activists will be given full sentences of 15 years is at this point unclear. Cologne legal expert von Gall has not ruled out that some of them will spend at least five years behind bars.

"In Russia, authorities have a lot of room to play with," she said, recalling the case of punk band Pussy Riot. In 2012, after a controversial performance in a Moscow cathedral, three young women were sentenced to two years in prison. Since then, Russia has experienced "an extremely repressive phase," von Gall said.

Whether that will stop future Greenpeace actions in the Arctic is also an open question. The group already tried to board the Prirazlomnaya oil platform in 2012.

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