27 Sep 2013

NZ activists face two months in jail

8:14 pm on 27 September 2013

Twenty-two Greenpeace activists, including two New Zealanders, have been jailed in Russia for two months while authorities investigate whether their protest action amounted to piracy.

The activists' ship Arctic Sunrise was seized and towed to shore late last week after two people tried to scale an oil platform belonging to state-owned energy company Gazprom to protest against Russian plans to drill for oil in the Arctic.

A district court in the city of Murmansk has ruled that 22 of the 30 detainees must remain in custody until 24 November. The other eight face a hearing in three days.

Those facing two months in jail include New Zealanders Johnathan Beauchamp and David John Haussmann, as well as activists from the United States, France, Canada, Britain, Denmark and Poland.

Three Russian citizens are also being kept in jail.

The group includes the ship's captain Peter Willcox who was the captain of the Rainbow Warrior when it was bombed by the French secret service in Auckland Habour in 1985.

Greenpeace is to lodge an appeal against the group's detention.

Greenpeace New Zealand executive director Bunny McDiarmid told Morning Report the New Zealanders are crewmen and were not in the group which scaled the drilling platform.

Ms McDiarmid says detaining the group is intimidation and she has concerns they are not getting proper access to lawyers, nor are their basic human rights being met.

She says Prime Minister John Key and Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully should raise the issue with their Russian counterparts at the United Nations General Assembly meeting they are currently attending.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs says British consular staff are providing assistance to the New Zealanders and the New Zealand Embassy in Moscow has been told they are well and have access to basic supplies.

A specialist in the law of the sea, Joanna Mossop, says it sounds as if the arrests took place on the high seas, leaving piracy the only charge open to the Russians.

She says the Russian authorities may find it difficult to make piracy charges stick.

Ms Mossop, says the likelihood of the Russians releasing the detainees depends on how much they want to send a message.

Mrs Mossop says the international community is rallying around in support of the protesters, which may help force the Russians to release them.

She says piracy charges are likely to have been laid because the ship was boarded in international waters, but the protesters' activities do not fit the legal definition of piracy.

Partner 'hopeful' of release

The partner of one the two detained detained activists says she hopes he and the other Greenpeace people will be freed within a short time.

Jon Beauchamp's partner Tania Purtle says she spoke to him in a quick phone call shortly after the Russians took over the Greenpeace ship but she's not sure when she will hear from him again.

Ms Purtle says the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Greenpeace New Zealand have been very helpful, but she's not sure what will happen next.