Lawyers for eight men accused of hijacking the Arctic Sea freighter as it passed through the Baltic Sea said Wednesday their clients are peaceful seamen who were merely practicing maritime skills when their boat ran into trouble.
They said the eight defendants who have been charged in a Russian court with abduction and piracy had done nothing wrong and only climbed onto the freighter off Sweden to seek help because their inflatable rubber boat was taking on water.
The comments were the latest addition to the saga of the Arctic Sea, whose alleged hijacking, subsequent disappearance and rescue by Russian naval ship prompted wide speculation about the ship's cargo and its destination.
Russian authorities have said the freighter, loaded with Finnish timber, was boarded July 24 by armed men, who beat the crew and forced them into submission before leaving in an inflatable boat.
Six days later, the ship disappeared after passing through the English Channel.
The Kremlin then announced on Aug. 17 that a Russian frigate had intercepted it off western Africa, thousands of kilometers from the Algerian port where it was supposed to deliver its load of timber two weeks earlier.
A Russian shipping expert and an EU anti-piracy official have speculated that the vessel was carrying clandestine cargo, possibly surface-to-air missiles for Iran or Syria. Russian officials have dismissed the allegations.
One of the lawyers, Omar Akhmedov, told reporters that the suspects were practicing navigation in the Baltic Sea when they got lost and their rubber boat began taking on water. They accidentally reached the Arctic Sea and asked for help, he said.
Akhmedov said his client, Dmitry Savins, and the others were trying to practice their seafaring skills before applying for job with a Spanish environmental protection company. He wouldn't name the company.
Another lawyer, Egon Rusanovs, said that Savins and others were desperate to find new jobs amid high unemployment in the Baltic nations. Most of the eight come from Estonia and Latvia.
The eight are being held in Moscow's high-security Lefortovo prison; lawyers argued that keeping the suspects in custody violated Russian law.
Meanwhile, Russian investigators who had remained on board the Arctic Sea to inspect it as part of the official investigation, prepared to hand the ship over to authorities of Malta, whose flag the freighter was flying. The federal Investigative Committee said the transfer will take place on the Canary Islands over the next two days.