A Russian court has dropped piracy charges against the crew of a Greenpeace ship detained last month in the Arctic Circle, Russian authorities and Greenpeace said Wednesday.
Russian officials have been under intense international pressure since the detention on Sept. 19 of the U.S. captain of the Arctic Sunrise and 27 other Greenpeace members who staged a protest at the Prirazlomnaya oil rig, which Gazprom, the state oil company, operates in the Arctic Ocean near the tiny settlement of Verandey. The crew were accompanied by two freelance journalists, who were also arrested.
Russia's Federal Investigative Committee said in a statement Wednesday that the piracy charges — which carried maximum sentences of 15 years in prison — had been replaced with charges of criminal hooliganism, which carry maximum seven-year terms.
At the same time, the Foreign Ministry said in a separate statement that it was "open to the settlement" of the case, the state news agency RIA Novosti reported Wednesday.
The statements came as Russia rejected the Netherlands' request to call a meeting of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to resolve the deadlock over the Greenpeace icebreaker, the Arctic Sunrise, some of whose crew tried to climb the oil rig to protest offshore drilling.
Greenpeace confirmed the reduction of charges Wednesday, saying, "Russia has simply dropped one serious charge and replaced it with another that still carries the very real prospect of the Arctic 30 languishing in jail for up to seven years."
In a statement, the international environmentalist activist group vowed to "contest the trumped up charge of hooliganism as strongly as we contested the piracy allegations."
"The Arctic 30 are no more hooligans than they were pirates," it said.
Greenpeace and other environmental groups have protested the Prirazlomnaya rig because of what they say are the unique circumstances in the area — it's sealed off from other oceans, meaning a potential oil spill couldn't disperse, critically endangering polar bears and other Arctic wildlife.
The court in the northern Russian city of Murmansk denied bail for the Arctic Sunrise crew Oct. 15.