International arbitration proceedings over detention of the Arctic Sunrise environmental vessel have begun in The Hague, and Greenpeace lawyers say they intend to sue the Russian government, as well.

Protests in support of the Greenpeace activists took place in around 50 countries. Photo: AFP / East News

The Dutch government announced in early October that it would file a complaint against Russia with the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, over the arrest of Greenpeace activists who staged a protest near the Prirazlomnaya drilling rig in the Pechora Sea.

The Arctic Sunrise ship was Dutch-registered, and two Dutch citizens were among the activists detained by Russian authorities.

The Hague is continuing its efforts, however, to secure a release of the activists through diplomatic channels, too. According to the Greenpeace press service, the environmental organization applauds the Dutch government’s decision and hopes that other states will support the Netherlands in this initiative. The litigation could take two months at most, they believe.

The day before the Ducth government’s announcement, Russia’s Investigative Committee charged all 30 international activists aboard the vessel at the time of the assault on the rig with piracy; the crime is punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

The reaction of Russian authorities to the Investigative Committee’s actions and to the Netherlands’ legal steps has been mixed. Russian President Vladimir Putin said the environmentalists were not pirates, although they did break international law.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that, “Concerns about the environment cannot justify illegal acts, however high the motives of the people taking part in various actions.” On his initiative, the government has adopted a decree on mandating harsher penalties for sneaking into fuel and energy facilities.

As far as the arbitration is concerned, Moscow believes it has far more grounds for resorting to international law.

“Over the past year and a half, the Russian side has repeatedly demanded that the Netherlands, as the flag state of the Arctic Sunrise, put an end to illegal acts by this ship. Unfortunately, this has not been done, so we have far more questions for the Dutch side than they might have for us,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov told RIA Novosti, calling the activists’ actions “a provocation.”

Gazprom Neft, the drilling rig’s operator, said that the attempt to scale the platform was far from innocuous, contrary to Greenpeace’s claims. According to CEO Alexander Dyukov, “Law enforcement agencies should treat the incident [by] taking into account that Greenpeace’s actions might not only have entailed a breach of industrial and environmental safety, but also [might] have seriously jeopardized the lives of people working underwater at the time.”

Other countries, including France and Australia, have been trying to secure a release of the crew through diplomatic channels. Meanwhile, Oct. 5 saw protests in support of the activists in around 50 countries. According to Dutch media, some 500 protesters gathered near the Russian Embassy in The Hague.

Protests also took place in London (with the famous fashion designer Vivienne Westwood taking part), Madrid, Moscow, and other cities across Europe and elsewhere (Hong Kong, Australia, South Africa, etc.).

In Germany alone, protesters flooded the streets in dozens of cities. Greenpeace’s website invites visitors to sign petitions to Russia’s embassies, to demand the release of the activists.

According to Dutch media, Greenpeace is concerned about the health of the detained and their access to medicines. The organization has called the conditions in one of the jails “primitive.”

At a press conference held at Interfax, Greenpeace lawyers said they were prepared to file a suit in the European Court of Human Rights over the conditions in which the activists are being held. The lawyers also said they had a lot of procedural claims regarding the way the ship was seized and the manner in which the environmentalists were arrested.

This article first appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines.