A Russian judge has decided to detain a group of Greenpeace activists, including two Canadians, for two months pending a piracy investigation.
The activists were initially detained earlier this month, after attempting to climb onto an Arctic offshore-drilling platform owned by a state-controlled gas company.
Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's comments earlier this week that "it is absolutely evident that they are, of course, not pirates," a Russian court decided Thursday not to dismiss the case, and to proceed with a piracy investigation.
So far, the court has decided that 15 of the 30 activists – including Paul Douglas Ruzycki of Port Colbourne, Ont., and Alexandre Paul of Montreal – will be held in custody for two months, as Russian officials complete their investigation. No charges have been laid against any of the activists.
Reached at her Port Colbourne home Thursday morning, Mr. Ruzycki's sister Debbie Reid said she last heard from Paul on Wednesday, after Canadian diplomats visited the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise (which has been towed to a port near Murmansk). "He just told them to tell me that he is well, that he was on the ship, that he's being fed, and that there's no violence shown towards him," she said.
"It's just taken a turn for the ugly, and I'm just devastated," Patti Stirling, another one of Mr. Ruzycki's sisters, said Thursday morning.
Mr. Ruzycki, 48, was a first mate on the vessel, and has been working with Greenpeace for more than 25 years. Their father was in the navy during World War II, so it was only natural for Paul to follow in his footsteps by working on ships, Ms. Stirling said. After a stint with a Canadian shipping company where he was told to throw garbage overboard, she said, he refused and was told "dump it, kid, or we're gonna throw you overboard." He quit that job and soon after, joined Greenpeace.
Ms. Stirling, who is also a member of Greenpeace, said that her brother has travelled all over the world with the group, including several stints in Russia, and this is the first time he's ever been in serious trouble. "They've been doing research up in the high Arctic, making missions into Russian waters to monitor the giant oil activity going on up there," she said. "That's what they do. They go to show the world by showing up in person, get a photo and a flag, saying 'we're here, this isn't hearsay.' That is the mission of bearing witness."
Mr. Paul, 35, was a bosun on the vessel, and has been involved with Greenpeace since he was about 20, his mother Nicole Paul said. She said she received a call from the Canadian embassy Wednesday, and is now worried that her son could face extensive jail time – the maximum sentence for piracy charges in Russia is 15 years.
"It's been hard. It's been two weeks and I've been on the Internet online every night looking for news," she said. Ms. Paul said her son has been arrested once before during a protest in the U.K., but was released after just one night. She's proud of her son for having principles and fighting for the environment, but added "if you ask me if I am reassured, no, not at all."
Although Mr. Putin questioned whether the activists should be charged with piracy, he defended Russian officials' actions in seizing the boat, and said that Greenpeace had clearly violated international law by sending the activists to try to board the oil platform.
The court is expected to issue its decision on the remaining activists – including at least one other Canadian from Montreal – throughout the next few days. The group of activists hail from 18 different countries, Greenpeace says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development said that they are aware of a situation involving two Canadians in Murmanski, and that consular services are being provided to the two citizens.
"The Russian authorities are trying to scare people who stand up to the oil industry in the Arctic," Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo said in a statement Thursday. "But this blatant intimidation will not succeed. We are resolute in our commitment to protecting the Arctic environment and the world's climate."
With a report from Tu Thanh Ha