In some ways, it's surprising that Vladimir Putin isn't more revered by conservative Western bigots. On the 19th of September, while taking a break from effectively making homophobia obligatory by law, his administration launched the largest governmental attack on Greenpeace since the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior ship by the French Intelligence Service in 1985.
A group of heavily armed anti-terrorist agents from the FSB (the spiritual successor to the KGB) forcibly boarded Greenpeace's Arctic Sunrise boat after activists tried to climb the controversial Prirazlomnaya oil rig in the Arctic Sea. They were there to protest deep-sea drilling in the area, which they say is damaging the fragile Arctic ecosystem, but 28 of them – as well as two freelance journalists – were put under armed guard and towed the five-day journey back to Russia, where they spent two months in Murmansk prison.
The activists were initially charged with piracy, but the charge was later dropped to "hooliganism" – which still carries a ludicrous seven-year sentence. The last of the Arctic 30 were released on bail in St Petersburg on the 28th of November after spending 71 days in jail. But with a trial still pending and efforts by the British Government seemingly falling on deaf ears – presumably because Putin regards the UK as "a small island nobody cares about" – the protesters are unable to leave Russia and still face prosecution.
I called up British activist Frank Hewetson to talk about the protest, his time in Murmansk and what the future holds for him and the rest of the Arctic 30.
VICE: Hi Frank. Can you talk me through the events of your capture?
Frank Hewetson: We arrived at Prirazlomnaya on the 18th and attempted to get people onto it to hang a banner as a peaceful protest. The coastguard vessel tried to stop us and the situation rapidly became quite non-peaceful. A lot of damage was done to our boat, firearms were discharged and we decided that our safety had been pushed too far, so we retreated. Then there was a standoff for a good 24 hours. The coastguard wanted to board our vessel and discuss the events of the day with us, which we realised would probably result in our arrests. On the 19th, they flew a helicopter out of Moscow and loads of heavily armed agents from the anti-terrorist wing of the FSB descended on our boat and took control.
That must have been pretty terrifying?
Well, we'd had the coastguard vessel with us for the previous five days, so it wasn’t that scary, really – it was kind of expected. And I have to say, they were relatively professional. One of them even helped me carry a tray with tea and cakes from one level to the other, all while he was wearing a balaclava and had an AK-47, a knife and a handgun strapped to him. Then they basically imprisoned us in a reduced area of the ship, under armed guard – the captain was completely separated from us – and started our five-day tow back to Russia.
It sounds like something from Hornblower, but – you know – with AKs and helicopters.
Actually, a few of us started reading those kinds of books when we got to jail. We weren't expecting the piracy charge, we weren't expecting two months incarceration in a pretty grim prison and we weren't expecting to be held in Russia. We’re still not free now. We still can’t leave Russia, and we still have a trial date that has to happen before the 24th of February. So at this present moment I’m sitting in a very nice restaurant in St Petersburg, but we could go back to court and we could face a jail sentence.
Are you still facing the piracy charge?
I believe they have technically removed the piracy charge, which carries a minimum of 15 years imprisonment. Being charged with that really took the wind out of our sails. In Britain, if the police charge you with something, it means they’re serious – they’ve got a case against you and they will proceed with it. Fortunately, they’ve dropped that charge and now it’s hooliganism with a weapon, which is also a ridiculous charge.
What was the weapon?
I think they’re referring to a line-launching catapult, but I can’t be totally sure. That’s not a weapon. I don’t know where the weapon was. Well, I do: they had it and they fired it.
You’re still facing some pretty serious jail time, though. Seven years, right?
We are, yeah. We’re hoping they reduce it. Well, we’re hoping they realise there is no case and we get sent home. There are varying degrees of hooliganism – one is just a fine, and if anything it should be that. But it shouldn’t even be that, really. We’ve committed no crime. Don’t forget this man-made island is outside the 12-nautical-mile zone, therefore it’s in international waters. We were seized illegally and all of our equipment has been taken illegally.
Can you talk about your time in jail?
Yes, it was pretty grim. I think the jail in Murmansk was previously a mental hospital. The whole of the first floor was full of prisoners with tuberculosis. I was on the third floor. It was extremely run-down. The food was truly grim. We were locked up in a cell for 23 hours a day. The cell was, I think, 2.2 by 5.5 metres, or something like that. They have this motto there: "Don’t hope, don’t fear and don’t beg." It really rang true.
What was the toughest part?
We had an hour of recreation per day. As you entered the prison you were taken through a pretty dilapidated basketball court, which is where I was expecting to be taken for recreation. So I was totally crushed when I was taken to this concrete pen with a sheet steel cover over the roof. There was no sunlight; you couldn’t see the sky at all. I’ve seen better pigpens. You were on your own unless one of your Russian cellmates wanted to join you, and that was it. That was your hour of exercise.
How did you get on with your cellmates?
Turning up there with your roll mat and your pillow, blanket and sheets, you shook hands with your cellmates and you lay down and didn’t really know how long you were going be in there for. Obviously there was a massive language barrier, but we got on with them as best we could. Unfortunately for me, mine were both chain smokers. I don’t smoke, and the only way to get the smoke out is to open the window. And, of course, at night it’s well below zero.
It was. You have to take it a day at a time and take it slow, which is sometimes difficult when presented with a piracy charge and 15 years in prison. I made quite a few court appearances and I’d be squeezed into a tiny prison van for transport. Sometimes the van would break down and they would have to get out and push it with me inside. It was actually kind of hilarious. It did oscillate a lot between being the worst thing ever and utter hilarity. I remember going into the yard and slipping on ice and going flat on my back. It was awful, but I just found it really funny, looking down on myself and thinking how pathetic I must look.
Yeah, that helped a lot. There were six Britons on the vessel and a couple of us used to whistle "The Great Escape", which was so wonderful to hear. That building, that whole environment – the razor wire, the dogs, the megaphones, the watchtowers, the dilapidated buildings – it just made you feel like you were in one of those old war movies. But you weren’t – you were banged up and looking at years inside. So it was very surreal to hear "The Great Escape", because you really did want to escape.
Even though the protest hasn't exactly turned out how you wanted, do you think it’s been successful at drawing attention to the issue?
Yes, I definitely feel it has, and I want the Arctic campaign to continue. It’s an iconic campaign and I think the public really take it seriously. They understand the fragility of the Arctic and they fully understand what we’re campaigning about. We spent two months in prison; it was a huge news story and I think it has highlighted how seriously we take the issue. I really hope the support continues.
What is it exactly that you hope to come out of all this?
If there were some kind of moratorium on drilling in the Arctic, we would take that as a huge victory. Don’t forget we actually achieved that in Antarctica – we got a 50-year moratorium on any mineral and oil extraction in the Antarctic. That was driven by Greenpeace, so we can save the Arctic, but we just don’t have much time in which to do it.
Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewfrancey
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