Twenty-eight Greenpeace activists from 18 different countries, and two independent journalists, have been charged in Russia with piracy with a maximum 15 years in prison. This is despite president Putin saying last week: "Obviously, they are not pirates". But what is obvious to Putin, speaking in front of the world's press at an Arctic Forum, may become obscured within the labyrinth of the Russian legal system.
Greenpeace has been taking direct action at sea for 42 years and in the Russian Arctic for over three decades, campaigning against whaling, nuclear testing and more recently oil drilling. During that time, Greenpeace activists have never committed any acts of violence or theft. Trying to argue that the crew of a Greenpeace ship are not pirates feels more than a little surreal, like defending Mother Teresa against drunk and disorderly charges. But this Kafkaesque nightmare is concretely and unpleasantly real for the brave individuals who care enough about our world to bear witness to what is currently happening in the Arctic.
Applying piracy legislation to peaceful protesters exposes the nakedness of the prosecuting emperor. The piracy accusations are the Russian version of a strategic lawsuit against public participation (Slapp). These vexatious legal cases are popular around the world with corporations and governments who want to silence their critics with legal red tape. Gazprom doesn't want attention drawn to its reckless endangerment of the Russian Arctic and our shared climate, as they tow rusting drill rigs up into the world's most hostile seas. And in Russia, state-owned Gazprom tends to get what Gazprom wants. The Russian prosecutors are trying to scare activists away from Gazprom, and away from bearing witness to what is happening in the Arctic. If President Putin means what he says that Greenpeace activists "aren't pirates", then he should act now to end this farce.
Greenpeace is tenacious, and we're not likely to accept that Gazprom and its western partner in the Russian Arctic – Shell – have commercial interests that outweigh our need for a stable climate. The kind of person who volunteers to sail to the Arctic ocean to bear witness is not the kind of person who scares easily. But activists, and civil society more generally, can only function with public support. If global civil society is willing to tolerate these absurd charges of piracy, then Russia's actions will be legitimised. A dozen other governments around the world will sit up and take notice. The lesson they learn will be that they can silence their critics and protect the oil barons from public scrutiny with a lot more ferocity, and a lot less legality, than they had previously thought.
I would like to thank the hundreds of thousands of supporters who have been doing so much to help and protect our activists over the last week, your voices are their best defence. But we need everyone who cares about protecting civil society to speak out now.