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Russia reduces charges against 'Arctic 30' activists

Russia has said it has softened charges against activists jailed after a Greenpeace protest against drilling for oil in the Arctic. They are now charged with the lesser offense of hooliganism instead of piracy.

The announcement on Wednesday by Russia's main investigative agency means that the maximum jail sentence faced by the 30 imprisoned activists is now seven years, instead of 15 years for the previous charge of piracy.

But in a statement, the federal Investigative Committee said it was continuing its probe into the case and that additional charges could still be brought against some of the activists.

The statement follows a comment made last month by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He said he didn't feel the Greenpeace activists were pirates but was still of the opinion that they had violated international law.

The group of 28 Greenpeace activists, a Russian photographer and a British videographer have been in detention since their ship, the "Arctic Sunrise," was seized by the Russian coastguard during a protest at an oil rig belonging to the state-owned energy company Gazprom on September 18. Some of the activists tried to scale the Prirazlomnaya rig during the protest.

Greenpeace has denied accusations by Russian authorities that the activists used force, saying the protest was entirely peaceful. The organization has also said it would contest the lesser charges, adding in a statement that even a hooliganism charge "represents nothing less than an assault on the very principle of peaceful protest."

Hooliganism charges were also brought against members of the punk group Pussy Riot when they carried out a peaceful protest against Putin in a Moscow church. Three members of the group were sentenced to two years in a penal colony.

tj/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters)