On September 18, 2013, activists aboard the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise attempted to climb onto the Gazprom Prirazlomnaya oil rig in the Pechora Sea in protest against the perceived high risk to the environment of offshore drilling in the Arctic.
Russian coast guards descended from helicopters onto the ship, threatening the crew with knives and guns. Video footage of the confrontation can be found here.
The next day, the ship was seized by the coast guard and towed to the port of Murmansk, where crew members were taken to a detention facility for questioning. Despite President Vladimir Putin’s proclamation that the detainees were “obviously not pirates,” all 30 have since been charged with piracy, which in Russia carries a maximum jail sentence of 15 years.
Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA said, “It was the stiffest response that Greenpeace has encountered since the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985.”
The captain of the Arctic Sunrise is American Peter Willcox, who was also the captain of the Rainbow Warrior, bombed by French intelligence services in 1985, resulting in the death of photographer Fernando Pereira.
Two journalists were aboard the Arctic Sunrise, Russian photographer Denis Sinyakov and British freelance videographer Kieron Bryan, alongside the 28 activists.
While the case has been getting mainstream media attention in the UK and drawing celebrities to a thousand-strong protest outside the Russian Embassy in London, the US press has not yet devoted much coverage to the case, despite the incarceration of a US citizen, Willcox.
On October 9, Russian authorities claimed that hard drugs were found on the ship, and the charges will be modified accordingly. “During a search of the ship, drugs (apparently poppy straw and morphine) were confiscated,” Russia’s Investigative Committee said.
Greenpeace immediately released a statement. “Before leaving Norway for the Russian Arctic, the ship was searched with a sniffer dog by the Norwegian authorities, as is standard. The laws in Norway are amongst the strictest in the world, and nothing was found because nothing illegal was on the ship. Any claim that illegal drugs were found is a smear, it’s a fabrication, pure and simple.”
Russia’s treatment of journalists has been historically troubling. In its September 2009 report, the Committee to Protect Journalists repeated its conclusion that Russia was one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists.
I spoke to Bryan’s brother Russell about Kieron’s situation.
Andrew Wallace Chamings: Kieron has been charged with piracy. What’s the next step in his proceedings?
Russell Bryan: He has an appeal to be allowed bail at some point in the next week or so, although we do not know when. Other than that, we have no [indication] as to when his trial might be.
I understand the detainees have been moved around. Do you know Kieron’s precise location today?
He is now in a detention center in Murmansk along with the other 29 detainees. We haven’t been given details of exactly where, and we are still being told by the Foreign Office that the Russian authorities will not allow families to visit.
Have you or your family considered the prospect of traveling to Russia?
Absolutely. We are desperate to go. I think at the moment it’s a case of taking the Foreign Office advice. But we are starting to look at visas, and we will go as soon as we can. Mum and Dad want to make sure he’s OK and that he knows we are fighting for him.
Have the Russian authorities shown in any way that they are treating the two journalists differently from the activists?
Not so far, no. Greenpeace has made a point of differentiating the two of them and have stated that they were on the boat to document what was taking place. This appears to have had no effect.
Do you think Kieron and the others are being made an example of?
It certainly feels like that. Greenpeace carried out similar action last year and nothing happened. As a journalist, Kieron understood there were risks involved in this job, but that is also a part of the work he does. He has covered many things that haven’t been comfortable for him, the student protests being a good example. But at the same time no one could have foreseen what the Russian authorities have accused them of. It’s a ridiculous charge, and one [that] none of them, least of all Kieron, should be facing.
I understand that you received at least one letter from Kieron. How are his spirits? Does he have any insight into his prospects from the inside?
No, I don’t think he knows any more than we do, to be honest. He talks of being calm, which I imagine is because he doesn’t feel like he has done anything wrong. But at the same time, we know that he’s been described as emotionally drained and tired.
Has Kieron’s role as a hired journalist, not an activist, been clearly defined in the press?
Yes. We are getting there. It’s something that Greenpeace have been very supportive about and I know would matter to Kieron. He wasn’t a member of Greenpeace nor an activist, and we have been trying to correct that as much as possible. I’m not sure if it will make any difference in Russian court. I know it should, but I have no confidence that it will.