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Environment

UN tribunal sides with Arctic Sunrise activists

An international maritime court has called for the immediate release of the Arctic Sunrise activists and their vessel. The verdict was clear - but Russia's reaction to it remains to be seen.

The second session of the UN's International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea was held on Friday (22.11.2013) in Hamburg, following an appeal from the Netherlands against the detention of the Arctic Sunrise vessel and the 30 Greenpeace activists on board the ship. The activists had staged a protest at an oil rig owned by Russian oil giant Gazprom in mid September, before being arrested by Russian police.

The court proceedings didn't take long. Judge Shunji Yanai, president of the tribunal, read out the verdict in 35 minutes, pausing only to take a few sips of water. As he read, the four representatives from the Dutch Foreign Ministry, which had filed the appeal against the Russian Federation, exchanged glances several times and nodded in agreement.

Handshakes and hugs followed: the tribunal had met Dutch demands by calling on Russian authorities to immediately free the Arctic Sunrise vessel and all the detained activists in exchange for a 3.6 million euro ($4.9 million) bond from the Netherlands.

Arctic Sunrise in the sea

The Greenpeace activists face charges of hooliganism

Not quite unanimous

The tribunal ruled that as soon as the Hague pays the agreed bail in the form of a performance bond, Russian authorities are legally bound to allow the vessel - which sailed under the Dutch flag - as well as the detained Greenpeace activists to leave Russian territory. The ruling was almost unanimous, with 19 out of 21 judges supporting it. Only two judges opposed the motion: the representatives from Russia and Ukraine.

The ruling stated that the Dutch arguments had been taken into consideration. During the case's first hearing, which took place on November 6, the Dutch side asserted, among other things, that the actions of the Russian authorities are contrary to international law and are a violation of human rights. Dutch representatives also stated that the long-term presence of the Arctic Sunrise - a fairly old icebreaker - in Russia's Arctic port of Murmansk without the necessary maintenance could pose a danger to the environment.

Following their protest on September 18 at an oil rig in the Barents Sea, the Greenpeace activists have spent two months in Russian pre-trial detention centers. The environmentalists, who claim their actions were peaceful, face charges of "hooliganism." According to Russian law, they could serve up to seven years in prison.

A chance for Russian authorities

Liesbeth Lijnzaad, a legal adviser for the Dutch Foreign Ministry, told journalists that the Hague would need some time to carefully study the verdict of the tribunal. "It is a statement that we need to reflect on, and we need to study it further and determine how to proceed with it. I think it's also important to note that it's quite clear that the decision of the court is binding on both parties of this case," she said.

An anti-Greenpeace activist dressed as a Polar bear (R) confronts Greenpeace activists (L) rallying in support of the 'Arctic 30' detained Greenpeace activists in Moscow, on October 18, 2013. The the 'Arctic 30' are now in custody in Russian northern Murmansk region charged with on piracy charges for almost three weeks after their ship Arctic Sunrise was seized by Russian security forces after a protest at a Russian oil rig. AFP PHOTO / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Demonstrators in Russia and many other countries protested in solidarity with the activists

Many observers present in the courtroom noted that adhering to the tribunal's demands would be a chance for the Russian authorities to show - with actions rather than with words - that abiding by international law is something they value.

Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow the stipulations of the tribunal to be carried out. "Given that [Putin] has always argued the importance of international law, he must now do whatever he can to ensure that there will be no further delays in our colleagues reuniting with their families as soon as possible," he announced after the verdict was read out.

"It is very important that the international court has decided what is right and what is wrong," Marieluise Beck, a Green party representative from the German Bundestag who had come to hear the verdict, told DW. "Everything else is going to be the next step. Russia has to understand that its actions didn't correspond with international law."

Final hope

The US captain of the Arctic Sunrise, Peter Willcox REUTERS/Dmitri Sharomov/Greenpeace/Handout via Reuters

The US captain of the Arctic Sunrise, Peter Willcox, was among 13 activists freed on Friday

The UN tribunal was the only chance for the detained activists to be released, said Henning Jessen, a professor specializing in maritime law at the University of Hamburg, speaking with news agency dpa before the verdict. According to Jessen, if the tribunal had declared itself incapable of giving a verdict, it would have been unlikely that the Netherlands would have had another legal opportunity challenge Russia.

Just a few hours before the court went into session in Hamburg, another Greenpeace activist, the Russian citizen Roman Dolgov, was able to leave detention, along with other Arctic Sunrise crew members. Of the 30 activists arrested following the protest, all but one have now been released on bail.

Greenpeace's Naidoo said his Russian colleagues had already returned to their families, while the non-Russian activists are currently staying in a hotel in St. Petersburg. Earlier Friday, Russian authorities had announced that the foreigners will not be able to leave Russian territory until the case against them has drawn to a close. The majority of the detained Greenpeace activists are not Russian citizens.

Naidoo, however, was hopeful that Russia would comply with the tribunal's verdict and let the activists go home. "The Russian Federation previously respected the rulings of the tribunal and we hope it will do so this time as well," he said.

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