Copyright: Greenpeace
Copyright: Greenpeace

This morning the Russian state prosecutor officially laid charges of piracy against a Greenpeace activist from Brazil who had protested against oil drilling in the Arctic. A freelance videographer from Britain has also been charged with piracy.

Charges are expected to be brought against other Greenpeace campaigners over the coming hours and days. In Russia the chilling fact is that the charge of piracy carries a 15 year jail sentence.

It was two weeks ago today that 28 Greenpeace activists, a freelance photographer and the freelance videographer, were involved in a protest against the Gazprom’s Arctic drilling platform Prirazlomnaya.

In a typically daring Greenpeace action, two activists tried to climb the side of the oil platform to hang a banner.  The ship and crew were later seized at gunpoint by Russian security forces who abseiled onto the deck of the Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise.

The fact that Russians even seized the ship was met with outrage around the world. This indignation will only increase now people have been formally charged. The concept that 30 environmental activists and journalists, who are protesting against drilling in the Arctic and bearing witnesses to the destruction of a pristine region due to our addiction to oil, are somehow pirates is totally incomprehensible.

Indeed it would be dismissed as laughable if the consequences were not so serious.

The irony of a country that is sheltering the American whistleblower Edward Snowden, and talking about protecting human rights, whilst similarly incarcerating 30 innocent people is beyond irony, too.

This morning, Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo said: “This is an outrage and represents nothing less than an assault on the very principle of peaceful protest. Any claim that these activists are pirates is as absurd as it is abominable. It is utterly irrational, it is designed to intimidate and silence us, but we will not be cowed.”

Indeed, some 800,000 people have written to the Russian authorities demanding the release of the activists.  You can add your voice here.

Others calling for the release of the Arctic 30 include Nobel peace prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

It is also ironic that countries like Russia and Iceland are pushing for further drilling in the Arctic at the same time as the climate scientists are saying we have to start disinvesting out of fossil fuels.

Ignoring the warnings of scientists, Iceland is the latest country to be opening up its waters to drilling. Back in January, it issued two licenses for oil exploration and is now finalizing a third.

But there is at least some good news from the Arctic. The newly formed Norwegian government has just reached an agreement with its Coalition partners, which includes a commitment not to open up the most controversial Norwegian Arctic waters to oil drilling for at least four years.

The new government will now not drill in the waters outside the Lofoten islands, and Vesterålen and Senja regions, and will not open for drilling in the areas around the beautiful Jan Mayen islands.

However the Arctic waters which have already been opened up for oil and gas development in parts of the Barents Sea will remain open for petroleum activity.

Silje Lundberg, the leader of Natur og Ungdom (Young Friends of the Earth Norway), which has been campaigning against drill in the the Lofoten islands for years, responded by saying that “This is a major victory to the local fishermen who’ve been fighting this for more then two decades and to us, the people.”

She added that the decision was right to block the oil industry because “the public don’t support them, the science don’t support them and the youth don’t support them. We believe in a different future for our country and for the northern region.”

These are words that the Russians should read and learn from too, instead of acting like a despotic, autocratic regime.