Russians ‘broke UN laws’ over arrest of activists

Lawyers representing the Netherlands have argued that Russia violated UN regulations when it seized the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise and charged those on board with piracy.

The Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea agreed to hear arguments on the case even though Russia refused to attend. Russia argued that even though it had ratified the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, it stipulated it would not accept arbitration on cases it considered to be matters of national sovereignty.

Dutch lawyers asked for the immediate release of 28 Greenpeace activists, a Russian photographer and a British videographer, as well as the Arctic Sunrise icebreaker. All were seized by the Russian coastguard after a protest near an oil rig owned by Russian state energy firm Gazprom in the Arctic on September 18.

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The Dutch argued there was no evidence of piracy and that the Russians had no valid reason to board the vessel without permission, therefore committing an “internationally wrongful act”. All moves that followed, like transferring the ship to Russian waters and arresting those on board, were also “internationally wrongful”, they said.

Russia’s main investigative agency said two weeks ago it had dropped the piracy charges against the jailed activists and replaced them with hooliganism charges – meaning a maximum possible seven-year sentence instead of 15 years.

At the same time Russia warned it could also file additional charges, including violence against authorities, which carries up to 10 years in prison.

Greenpeace, however, says its lawyers have not yet been formally notified by Russia that the piracy charges have been dropped.

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“Russian authorities propose to jail 30 men and women for two decades because a couple of peaceful protesters tried to hang a small yellow banner from the side of a 500,000-ton oil platform,” Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo said in a statement after the hearing.

The Hamburg tribunal was formed after the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea came into force in 1994 to adjudicate maritime disputes. The court will first have to decide if it has jurisdiction in the case – Russia insists it does not – then decide on the arguments advanced by the Netherlands.

The court expects to issue its ruling on November 22.

Russia has introduced a resolution in the UN General Assembly calling for a traditional, symbolic truce around the period of the Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games in Sochi. The resolution is expected to pass by acclamation.

It calls for all countries to observe a truce from a week before the Games until a week after they close “to encourage a peaceful environment and ensure safe passage, access and participation for athletes and relevant persons at the Games”.

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The Winter Olympics run from February 7-23; the Paralympics are from March 7-16.

Similar resolutions have had little impact on world conflicts during past Olympics. Russia and Georgia fought over South Ossetia during the summer Olympics of 2008.