By Conor Humphries
The eight suspected hijackers of the Arctic Sea cargo ship that went missing in the Atlantic Ocean this month appeared in court in Moscow on Friday to be formally arrested for piracy and kidnap.
"We were saving ourselves, we were drowning," said Igor Borisov, 45, after he was arrested. "We didn't hijack the ship."
The prosecutor said the ship was carrying $2 million worth of timber to Algeria, dismissing suggestions it was carrying illegal weapons.
The Russian Navy tracked the ship into the Atlantic after Moscow said it had suffered an act of piracy and boarded it off the Cape Verde islands on Monday, freeing the 15 Russian crewmen.
A lawyer for the defendants, Konstantin Baranovsky, said the suspects were "peaceful ecologists."
Prosecutor Zelimkhan Kostoyev told Reuters that all eight men pleaded not guilty.
Russia has so far released no detailed account of why pirates would target a ship carrying timber in some of the world's best policed seas and the mass of conflicting information in the saga has sparked speculation that it had a secret cargo of arms or even nuclear materials.
The defendants face a maximum of 15 years in prison if found guilty of piracy and kidnap.
Defendant Dmitry Bartenev, 41, an unemployed Russian citizen living in Estonia, was dragged handcuffed through the court room and arrested. His head bowed in a cage, he said solving the maritime mystery was not in Russia's jurisdiction.
"A Russian court does not have the right to hear this case. The alleged illegal act happened in Swedish waters on a ship with a Maltese flag."
He declined to say what was on the ship.
Friday's arrests mean the detention of the suspects has been extended by up to two months. The eight men include one Estonian national, one Latvian, two Russians and four, including Borisov, who are registered with no citizenship.
Baranovsky said the hearing and the arrests were unlawful and a "crude violation" of the European Charter of Human Rights.
Russia said the Arctic Sea was hijacked on July 24 off the coast of Sweden by eight armed men, who forced the crew to sail for Africa with its positioning systems switched off.
The hijackers then threatened to blow up the ship if their ransom demands were not met, the Defense Ministry said. Russian television said 1 million euros had been demanded.
Leaving court on Friday, Bartenev said: "We were caught in a storm and were forced to evacuate to the nearest ship."
Maritime experts note piracy has been extremely rare in northern Europe since the age of buccaneers in the 17th century. (Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman)