Russia is harking back to the desperate, discredited tradition of the gulags by charging 30 environmental activists and journalists with piracy for protesting against oil drilling in the Arctic, a former minister has said.
Labour’s Glenda Jackson said she was unsure whether arguing for a compassionate approach to the so-called “Arctic 30” was a good idea as Russia has “one of the blackest” histories regarding its treatment of prisoners and the charges they face.
Six Britons - including three from Devon - are among the 30 people being held in Murmansk after armed Russian officials boarded Greenpeace vessel the Arctic Sunrise last month as activists tried to protest against state-controlled energy company Gazprom’s oil drilling in the Arctic’s Pechora Sea.
All of those detained have since been charged with piracy which Ms Jackson argues is an “absurdity” and showed the Russians were taking a “great hammer to crack a nut”.
But she said she was unsure whether making representations to the Russian authorities on compassionate grounds would work but said the detainees should be given bail.
During a Westminster Hall debate, Ms Jackson said: “I share with everyone who has spoken today a sense of almost disbelief that the Russian authorities have chosen to take this great hammer to crack a nut.
“The charge of piracy I think for those who clearly have comprehensive legal backgrounds in international law is an absurdity.
“What I find even if the Russian authorities are determined to hang on to the charge of piracy is their obduracy in not granting the Arctic 30 bail. What possible harm can they do if they are giving bail?
“I’m in two minds of whether arguing that one should put forward the compassionate approach to the prisoners.
“Because of course we are talking about a society which even the slightest contact with Russian culture and literature – we have all read I presume the Gulag Archipelago, so Russian treatment of prisoners whether the charges were justified or not is surely one of the blackest stories in the history of humankind.
“But I am amazed that Russia, which seems to want to go back to the old, desperate, surely discredited tradition, seemingly wants to replicate it yet again so soon after we have seen them take a major, major step forward in international affairs in being so central and essential in ensuring that the inspectors were allowed into Syria and the chemical weapons are going to be destroyed and brought out.
“I think far from arguing on the level of them suddenly discovering a compassionate nature, we should be arguing with them that this is really good PR for them.”
Piracy carries a 10 to 15-year jail term in Russia and Devon video journalist Kieron Bryan is among those facing the charges.
Along with Mr Bryan are activists Alexandra Harris, Philip Ball, Frank Hewetson and Anthony Perrett, and second engineer Iain Rogers.
The Arctic 30 and their boat were taken from waters near the port of Murmansk on September 19 after two of them tried to board Gazprom’s oil rig.
Those arrested include citizens of Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, France, Sweden, Poland, Turkey, Ukraine and the US.
Greenpeace has warned a spill in Arctic waters would be highly damaging to the environment and the extraction of more fossil fuels would add to climate change impacts.
Gazprom’s plans to start drilling from the Prirazlomnaya platform in the first quarter of 2014 raised the risk of an oil spill in an area that contains three nature reserves protected by Russian law, campaigners have said.
Meanwhile, 11 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including South African archbishop Desmond Tutu and Northern Irish peace activists Mairead Maguire and Betty Williams, have written a letter to Russian president Vladimir Putin calling for the piracy charges to be dropped.
The letter came after German chancellor Angela Merkel became the first head of state to raise the issue of the crew’s detention with Mr Putin, urging a speedy resolution of the case in a phone call.
The families of the Britons involved have met with the Foreign Office to discuss what was being done to bring their loved ones home.