American Greenpeace ship captain bailed by Russian court

The American captain of the 'Arctic Sunrise' ship Peter Henry Wilcox stands in a detention cage during a hearing at the Kalininsky courthouse in St. Petersburg. Anatoly Maltsev / EPA

The American captain of a Greenpeace ship who was arrested and held in Russia for protesting against offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean was freed on bail early Friday.

Peter Willcox was being held in a detention center after piloting the Arctic Sunrise icebreaker ship to the side of the Prirazlomnaya oil platform, where activists from the environmental group tried to scale the side on Sept. 17. 

But judges at a St. Petersburg court freed him from prison pending further inquiries, Greenpeace said in a statement. 

Willcox, 60, was originally charged along with 27 other activists and two journalists with piracy, a charge that carries a 15-year jail term, but investigators later downgraded the charge to hooliganism.

“For now, the foreign nationals will stay at safe place in St. Petersburg,” the Greenpeace statement said. “There is still no clarity on when the Arctic 30 can leave Russia and finally be able to return home.”

Willcox lives with his wife Maggy, 61, on a 14-mile island off the coast of Maine, where she publishes a local newspaper. The couple, who have known each other for years, just married in February.

In an earlier interview with NBC News Maggy said she had not discussed the risk of the mission with her husband before he embarked but indicated that he may have known the dangers.

"Peter did sit me down this time and make me go over his bill-paying procedures – so I think he may have had an inkling that this was risky. But I don't think anybody imagined this response," she said.

“I would never ask Peter to stop doing what he loves,” Willcox added. 

A total of 27 people have been granted bail this week. One activist, Australian Colin Russell, had his request for bail denied, Greenpeace said.

The environmentalists say the oil drilling threatens the fragile Arctic environment, a charge Moscow denies.

This was the second year in a row that Greenpeace activists have staged an action against the world’s first Arctic off-shore oil rig, owned by Russia’s state-controlled oil giant Gazprom.