MOSCOW - Russia opened a criminal case Tuesday against Greenpeace activists, accusing them of piracy for attempting to stage a protest on an Arctic oil rig. A Greenpeace spokeswoman called the accusation "absurd."
Russian border troops seized the Greenpeace ice-breaker Arctic Sunrise, along with its multinational crew of 30 activists and sailors, in a dramatic commando operation in the Barents Sea on Thursday. The day before, the group had been foiled while attempting to raise a protest banner on a Russian oil drilling platform.
The ship was towed by the Russian coast guard to an anchor in Kola Bay, about six miles from the port of Murmansk.
"After conducting a preliminary investigation, the Russian Investigative Committee's northwestern branch initiated a criminal case on the signs of ... piracy committed by an organized group," Vladimir Markin, the investigative committee spokesman, said in a statement published on the agency's website Tuesday.
No formal charges have been filed. Piracy carries a potential sentence of five to 15 years in prison.
Greenpeace has said the group intended to raise a banner on the Prirazlomnaya drilling platform to protest Arctic pollution. Prirazlomnaya is a major Arctic oil exploration project of Gazpromneft, a subsidiary of the Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom. It lies within a Russian exclusive economic zone.
Greenpeace spokeswoman Maria Favorskaya said Russian authorities had acted illegally in seizing and towing the group's ship, which was traveling under the Netherlands flag.
"At first they accused our activists of terrorism, then of illegal scientific research activities and now they come up with the absurdist charge of them all - piracy!" Favorskaya said in a telephone interview from Murmansk. "How can peaceful activists who simply tried to put up a poster up the side of an oil drilling platform be accused of such a serious felony?"
One expert in international maritime law said the charge would appear to be a reach.
"They can't be too serious about charging them with piracy," said Joseph C. Sweeney, professor emeritus of international and maritime law at Fordham University Law School. "That requires stealing things and the intention of stealing things."
Any legal case may turn on whether the ship was within the exclusive economic zone, as Russia maintains, or in international waters, where Greenpeace has said the ship was when it was boarded. The exclusive zone extends 200 miles off the Russian coast.
If the Greenpeace ship was boarded within the Russian zone, "Then the Russians certainly have the right to protect their own operations," Sweeney said.
He added that there are no legal cases similar to the current situation.
Loiko reported from Moscow and Cart from Los Angeles.