The investigative committee of the Russian Federation has re-classified the charges against Greenpeace activists, who previously faced up to 15 years in prison for piracy for their protest action at the Prirazlomnaya oil platform in the Pechora Sea. The Russian Federation has also dismissed attempts by the Dutch to free the 30 detained crew members of the Greenpeace boat through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Thus we have another criminal case worthy of international attention to be tried in the Russian courts.
The "hooliganism" charges are no joke: they carry a penalty of up to 7 years in prison. Just ask the imprisoned members of the art collective Pussy Riot, who are nearing the end of their 2-year prison terms for singing and dancing in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. Convicted for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" (article 213, part 2), Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Mariya Alyokhina hope to regain their freedom in March 2014. They are serving time in penal colonies whose conditions have come under increased public scrutiny, leading to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's 9-day hunger strike and subsequent transfer from Mordovia to Chuvashia.
Now consider the example of Yegor Filatov and Dmitry Arkhipov, also convicted "hooligans." These young men stood trial earlier this summer for attacking migrants and foreigners on a commuter train in Moscow region. Filatov and Arkhipov were charged with "hooliganism motivated by racial or national hatred, with use of weapons" (article 213, part 2) for walking between train cars and targeting for violence anyone who didn't look Slavic. They threatened their victims with a knife, walked them to the last car, and kicked them in the face, arms, and legs. For these actions Arkhipov was sentenced to 1 year and 8 months in prison and Filatov to 1 year & 3 months. Both sentences were suspended, and the two young men are now free on probation.
Tolokonnikova & Alyokhina and Filatov & Arkhipov come from very different groups, both of which are dissatisfied with the situation in Russia.
Pussy Riot's supporters and sympathizers have been "rocking the boat" for two years, participating in organized and government-authorized mass protests against alleged election-rigging, corruption, and the erosion of fundamental rights in Vladimir Putin's Russia. The government has responded by jailing dissenters and passing odious laws, including the infamous anti-"propaganda" law (the subject of our recent report, "Convenient Targets").
While the Kremlin's wrath was being absorbed by the "creative class" that supports LGBT rights and Pussy Riot, the Russian government's failures in properly addressing corruption, racially motivated violence, and interethnic relations in Moscow erupted in a riot in Biryulevo, where individuals who are ideologically closer to the likes of Yegor Filatov and Dmitry Arkhipov reacted to a murder of a Slavic man by overturning cars, throwing debris at police, and smashing windows of local stores. The pogrom in Biryulevo was an example of another potent threat felt by Vladimir Putin's government -- a threat posed by ordinary citizens, some of whom have nationalist tendencies but most of whom are simply fed up with corruption and economic inequality, and probably don't care much about the fate of Pussy Riot or LGBT rights in Russia.
So where do the charges against Greenpeace activists fit? The 30 environmental activists are charged under article 213, part 2 -- "hooliganism with use of weapons, committed by an organized group." Yet, Greenpeace poses no viable threat to the Russian government, they did not attack anyone like Filatov and Arkhipov, nor did they desecrate a Russian holy site like Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina: as far as we know, no singing and dancing took place on the oil platform.
The reclassification of the charges against Greenpeace is a step in the right direction, but it's unclear if it will save the environmentalists from jail. Though the appeal to move the matter to an international maritime court failed, foreign governments must keep advocating for the activists' release. There is no strong-arming Russia into compliance these days, but persuasion and trade-offs can still be effective.
Still, the Biryulevo fiasco is a sign that it's time for Russia to reconsider its policies and laws. The easiest way out of this pickle for the Kremlin is to free the Pussy Riot members, deport the Greenpeace folks, and ensure that all violent crime is investigated and prosecuted properly. "Hooliganism" is a leftover from Soviet jurisprudence; it's a criminal code article used to classify an extremely wide and ambiguously defined set of disruptive behaviors. What we need is clarity, and -- in the absence of rule of law and pervasive "legal nihilism" -- only Vladimir Putin can provide that. Clarity is bliss.