MOSCOW – Russia's main investigative agency said Wednesday that it has dropped piracy charges against jailed Greenpeace activists and charged them instead with hooliganism, which could still mean years in prison.
The Investigative Committee's statement follows a comment by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said last month that he doesn't think that the Greenpeace activists were pirates.
Piracy is punishable by a prison term of up to 15 years, while the specific hooliganism charge being applied now carries a maximum sentence of seven years.
The Investigative Committee also warned that it could file additional charges against the Greenpeace activists, including violence against authorities – punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The 28 Greenpeace activists, a Russian photographer and a British videographer have been held since their ship, the "Arctic Sunrise" was seized by the Russian coast guard after protesting outside the oil rig belonging to Russia's Gazprom state energy giant on Sept. 18.
The Investigative Committee said that the detainees' refusal to testify has impeded the investigation. "That prompts the investigators to thoroughly check all possible versions, including the seizure of the platform for financial benefit, terrorist motives, the conduct of illegal scientific research and espionage," the agency added.
It dismissed the Greenpeace claim that the protest was peaceful, saying it was a crime under an international law to try to seize an oil rig.
Vladimir Chuprov of Greenpeace Russia said the activists "are no more hooligans than they were pirates" and should be freed immediately.
"We will contest the trumped-up charge of hooliganism as strongly as we contested the piracy allegations. They are both fantasy charges that bear no relation to reality," he said in a statement.
Chuprov also dismissed the committee's warning that it may charge some of the activists with use of force against officials, pointing at Greenpeace's 42-year history of peaceful protest.
"They arrived at that oil rig in a ship painted with a dove and a rainbow," he said. "Those brave men and women went to the Arctic armed with nothing more than a desire to shine a light on a reckless business. "
The platform is the first offshore rig in the Arctic. It was deployed to the vast Prirazlomnoye oil field in the Pechora Sea in 2011, but its launch has been delayed by technological challenges. Gazprom said in September that it was to start pumping oil this year, but no date has been set.
The Netherlands has asked the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to order Russia to release a Greenpeace protest ship and the activists who were on board.