On Wednesday 18 September, four inflatable boats carrying 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists set sail from Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise ship moored in the Barents Sea, north of Russia’s western mainland extremity bordering Finland. Their destination was the Prirazlomnaya drilling platform owned by Gazprom, a private company mostly owned by the Russian government, and one of the largest extractors of natural gas in the world. Once there, the activists had intended to “shut down” the drilling or at least hang banners calling for an end to oil drilling in the arctic, depending on which testimony you read. What happened when they arrived, however, is by now probably all too familiar from the footage of their apprehension by Russian military agents firing water cannons and warning shots.
What’s happened since has been less clear. The platform itself was in international waters, yet the Arctic 30 have been detained in Russia ever since, in contravenance with international law. Initially they were arrested for piracy, but after two months spent in pre-trial prison, they were released on bail for ‘hooliganism’ pending their hearing. But because they did not enter the country 'legally', they have no visa to allow them to leave, rendering them in a legal quagmire. Speaking from St Petersburg, activist Frank Heweston explained why the group did what they did and how he’s hoping to escape seven years of hard labour.
Dazed Digital: How are you?
Frank Heweston: I’m okay. I’m in a very large hotel about four miles from St Petersburg centre, we’re all here because we can't go to any other hotel, this is the only one the Russian Federal Security Service will allow us to stay in.
DD: A member of your group was recently told that you cannot leave Russia. What’s going on?
Frank Heweston: Yeah, it is. Since we've been released we've been bounced around by two bodies, the Russian Immigration Service and the Investigation Committee; it's actually in the Investigation Committee's power to issue us with exit visas, but they don't have to, and they haven't, despite the fact each of us has paid €50,000 in bail. That's €1.5 million. Not only that, the Dutch government has paid a bond of €3.6 million for the release for our release after the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ruled that we should be set free. But the Russians have ignored it. And it's not like we're not going to come back for the trial; Greenpeace always attends court. If anything, we want it to happen so we can plead our case. As it stands, we're in limbo.
“Obviously, anyone who takes part in Greenpeace action gets a full brief, including possible legal ramifications. But don't forget, we did the same action a year ago, and the Russian coast guard just watched us and did nothing"
DD: How'd you get involved with Greenpeace?
Frank Heweston: It started in 1989. I was in Australia. I'd got a job as an extra for a crisp advert, and the guy operating the snow machine was in Greenpeace. After the shoot we went sailing, and that was it, he'd converted me. And I've been doing it ever since. Before that I’d been running warehouse parties in London, which taught me to how to deal with the police.
DD: Before you embarked on the project did you think that you might end up in jail?
Frank Heweston: No, we didn't think it was going to end up like this. Obviously, anyone who takes part in Greenpeace action gets a full brief, including possible legal ramifications. But don't forget, we did the same action a year ago, and the Russian coast guard just watched us and did nothing. So their reaction this year was pretty out of the blue. I certainly didn't expect to get charged with piracy. That charge has now been dropped, but that's what they arrested us with and that's what they used to cease our vessel.
DD: So what's the importance of stopping oil drilling in the Arctic?
Frank Heweston: Instead of rushing to burn more oil, we should be learning how to burn less. To date, we've discovered four times the amount of oil that, if burned, would cause irreparable climate change, yet people are still drilling. We're not saying ban fossil fuels; it's just that we cannot go on consuming them as we have done.
DD: What were you told when you were arrested?
Frank Heweston: Nothing. We were then held at gunpoint onboard the ship for five days. And when we got to Murmansk [a nearby port city], some of us were told to pack for a couple of hours to a day, and that, as it turned out, was actually the start of two months in prison. And it was pretty grim. We were later transferred to Kresty Prison in St Petersburg, but the one in Murmansk was awful. One day we found out that we’d been walking through a floor reserved for prisoners with tuberculosis, so it’s highly probable one of us has contracted it.
“One day we found out that we’d been walking through a floor reserved for prisoners with tuberculosis, so it’s highly probable one of us has contracted it"
DD: Were you in contact with each other while in prison?
Frank Heweston: None of us were allowed to talk to each other, because this was a pre-trial detention centre. The only time you'd see each other is when you were taken to court or in the exercise "pits" - these seven by seven meter square enclosed by wire mesh where we were allowed to go for one hour a day. If you shouted quite loudly you were just about speak to other people in other "pits", and that's how we shared news.
DD: You’re still looking at a charge of hooliganism.
Frank Heweston: Hooliganism with a weapon, actually. That's Grade 2 hooliganism. Grade 1 is punishable with a fine and Grade 3 is something to do with rioting. But we're not hooligans. We stage non-violent protests.
DD: What's the jail term for that?
Frank Heweston: Five to seven years in a 'zona' which you could call a gulag, basically. My gut feeling is that we won't be going down for that long and that we'll just be fined. We might go down for a few more months in another pre-trial detention centre, but I hope that's not the case. I hope we just get kicked out. But I'm making the most of my time in St Petersburg at the moment. Once you forget about the fact you're on trial, it's a lovely place. It's really interesting.