Russian investigators have adjusted the charges against the Greenpeace activists

The Investigative Committee had dropped piracy charges against Greenpeace activists. Source: ITAR-TASS

On Oct. 23, Vladimir Markin, the official representative of the Investigation Committee of Russia said that the case of the crew of the Greenpeace icebreaker Arctic Sunrise had been reclassified and instead of being charged with piracy, they were now being charged with “hooliganism committed with the use of objects used as weapons, organized by a group, and associated with resistance to authorities.”

The charge, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, is most often leveled at rowdy soccer fans.

"The conduct of the accused after their arrest does not help the process of a speedy establishment of truth in the matter either,” Markin said, referring to the refusal of the defendants to speak to investigators.

“Of course they have a right not to incriminate themselves, which is not questioned, but the failure of the accused to give evidence gives the investigating authorities all the reasons to thoroughly check all the possible versions of what happened, including the seizure of control over the platform out of self-interest, terrorist motives and conducting of illicit research activities and espionage."

However, Markin added, "any peaceful protest in this particular situation is out of the question. In accordance with the norms of international law, any person is committing an offense if that person unlawfully and intentionally seizes control over a fixed platform, or exercises control over it, regardless of the motives, which the person is guided by.”

Markin also said that the investigation does not exclude the possibility of charging some of the activists with use of violence against a representative of the authorities. If charged with the additional offense, the activists could face another five years in prison.

According to Victoria Zhdanova, a lawyer with Inmarin, the withdrawal of the charges of piracy may cancel the trial at the UN International Tribunal, as the Convention on the Law of the Sea does not contain provisions on hooliganism.

The Dutch government had filed a lawsuit against Russia at the UN International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea because the Arctic Sunrise is a Netherlands-flagged ship.

"Formally the international element disappears as soon piracy charges disappear, - said Zhdanova. “Most likely, the application will be withdrawn."

However, in her opinion, dropping the charges would not solve the problem of the detained activists, since it has still not been established, if they were detained in Russian or international waters.

"Prirazlomnaya is technically a Russian territory, but it is in international waters, in fact, it lies in the special economic zone, where Russian interests are protected in respect of the economic aspects, the issue remains complicated by this international element,” Zhdanova said.

Greenpeace, for its part, said it intends to continue to seek the crew’s release. Greenpeace Russia lawyer Anton Beneslavsky said that the accusation of hooliganism is even more far-fetched than the charges of piracy.

"The fact is that the territorial waters of Russia were far away; the exclusive economic zone is not a zone under Russia’s jurisdiction. You could commit only two crimes that would be punishable under the federal law; it is piracy on a Russian ship and the violation of the exclusive economic zone. Hooliganism committed by a Dutch ship in international waters does not concern the Investigative Committee. According to him, the re-qualifying of the case means an automatic review of the restrictive measures against the detained crew.”

On Sept. 18, the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise sailed to the oil platform "Prirazlomnaya" in the Barents Sea. Activists then attempted to board the platform. The Russian Coast Guard detained the 30 people on board the following day. They have been in pretrial detention in Murmansk since then.

This article first appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines.