Russia frees last Greenpeace activist

2013-11-28 18:05
Greenpeace International contracted freelance photographer Denis Sinyakov sitting in a defendant cage in a court in the northern Russian city of Murmansk. (Igor Podgorny, AFP)

Greenpeace International contracted freelance photographer Denis Sinyakov sitting in a defendant cage in a court in the northern Russian city of Murmansk. (Igor Podgorny, AFP)

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Moscow - A Russian court on Thursday granted bail to the last of 30 Greenpeace crew members detained since their September protest against Arctic oil drilling.

The decision to free the ship's Australian radio operator Colin Russell reversed an earlier ruling extending his detention, which was given just before all the other members of the Arctic Sunrise crew were released.

"Excellent news! Colin Russell from Australia is granted bail," the global environmental protection group tweeted in a message that was confirmed by Russian news agency reports from the Saint Petersburg court.

The Greenpeace protest targeted Russia's first oil rig in the Arctic - a politically sensitive region that President Vladimir Putin views as the future of the country's energy exporting might.

Irate Russian authorities initially accused the crew - two of whose members unsuccessfully attempted to scale the platform - of piracy before reclassifying the offence to the less serious charge of hooliganism.

Thursday's ruling came after a Saint Petersburg judge on 18 November ordered that Russell, 59, remain in pre-trial detention until 24 February - a day after the end of Russia's Winter Olympic Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

That decision sparked concern that Russia intended to take a tough line with the other members of the mostly foreign crew, despite international pressure to release them.

Officials never explained their apparent change of heart. But some analysts speculated that Russell's initial bail hearing was held before judges had received Kremlin instructions to go easy on the crew in the face of the developing diplomatic scandal.

The Saint Petersburg court's decision on Thursday was met with relief by Russell's family and a stern determination to keep fighting the charges by Greenpeace itself.

"I am so relieved that my beautiful, peaceful man will soon be out of detention," Russell's wife Christine said in a statement released by Greenpeace.

Hooliganism charges

"It remains a really difficult time and only when all of the Arctic 30 are free to go home will we be able to properly celebrate," she added.

The icebreaker's crew comprised nationals from 18 countries besides Russia and it remains unclear when the foreigners will be allowed to go home.

The hooliganism charges the crew still face carry seven-year sentences and the foreigners have been forced to stay in a Saint Petersburg hotel pending trial - should one still take place.

Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said on Saturday that the foreigners may actually be allowed to leave the country "as soon as the issue of how they can leave Russia is resolved".

Russian media said the problem hindering the crew members' departure is their lack of Russian visas.

"This is not over yet," said Greenpeace campaigner campaigner Ben Ayliffe.

"Charging them with hooliganism is both an insult and an outrage and none of us will truly be celebrating until they have been allowed to return home and the charges against them have been dropped."

Greenpeace said Russell would be released from prison as soon as the Saint Petersburg court accepts the organisation's $60 000 bail payment.

The Kremlin last week rejected a separate decision by an international maritime tribunal in Germany for Russia to return the Dutch-flagged icebreaker to Greenpeace.

Read more on:    greenpeace  |  russia  |  environment
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