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23 Nov 2013 13:18
Activists protest against Arctic drilling. (AFP)
Anthony Perrett, the first of six Britons among the Greenpeace Arctic 30 to be released on bail, has revealed details of the group's two months in prison. He also said that if he could turn back the clock, he would risk his freedom again to protest against Arctic oil drilling.
"I don't really want to go to jail for seven years, of course," Perrett told the Guardian in his first interview after his release.
"But maybe this is all a blessing in disguise.
Perrett, a 32-year-old tree surgeon from Newport, south Wales, said he had "no real complaints" about the way he was treated in prison – but that life improved dramatically when he was transferred with the other activists from the Arctic port of Murmansk to Saint Petersburg, and acquired creature comforts, such as a fridge and a "toilet area with walls".
Conditions in Murmansk were tough, Perrett said, but he bonded with his cellmates, a young Russian accused of firing an AK-47 in a nightclub and a man who had stabbed a security guard. One of the men had his 29th birthday while they were in jail and the other improvised a cake.
"It was a proper thing with fruit on top, and he even made the numbers 29 out of match sticks and lit them, then he woke up his cellmate and we all celebrated."
Perrett described an elaborate system of deliveries whereby prisoners would pass letters and gifts from cell to cell during the night using sticks with hooks on the end and coded shouts. "It was like the post - you couldn't open something if it wasn't for you," he said.
"It was a pretty fascinating insight into humanity." As the bailed members of the Arctic 30 swapped the detention centre for the more comfortable surroundings of a Saint Petersburg hotel , chattering on mobile phones and Skype connections filled the air, along with hearty laughter – and a palpable sense of relief.
It was the first taste of freedom for the 28 activists and two journalists since armed Russian coast guards descended from helicopters on to the Arctic Sunrise in September to foil a Greenpeace protest against the Gazprom-operated Prirazlomnaya oil rig.
The boat was towed to Murmansk, where the 30 were charged and initially detained. Common complaints among the detainees in Murmansk included exposure to the icy Arctic winds, lack of heating and almost inedible food, but most detainees agreed that conditions improved dramatically when they were transferred by prison train to St Petersburg earlier this month.
All but two of the Arctic 30 have now been bailed, and most are staying at the same central Saint Petersburg hotel, the name of which Greenpeace does not want made public for security reasons. Along with Perrett, fellow Britons Alexandra Harris, Frank Hewetson, Iain Rogers and Kieron Bryan were also released on Friday.
"This was the longest morning of my life," said Bryan, 29, as he was releasedat lunchtime from the imposing pre-trial detention centre. "I thought they had forgotten about me, so it's good to be outside, to see the sky."
The only two activists left in prison are Philip Ball, a Briton who is expected to be released on Monday, and Colin Russell, an Australian who was denied bail. His was the first hearing, and both Greenpeace and Australian diplomats are confident that his bail denial was an administrative error that will be fixed in the coming days.
Indeed, sources with knowledge of the investigation suggest that there has been a decision high up in the Russian government to close down the case altogether. The Kremlin does not want the controversy of lengthy trials followed by jail sentences for the 30, and feels it has made its point.
President Vladimir Putin even said this week that the organisation had "noble goals", although he insisted that the methods used were dangerous and unacceptable. For now, all 30 still face charges of hooliganism that could see jail sentences of up to seven years, but the decision to grant the activists bail has signalled a change of tack.
Greenpeace has paid bail charges of 2-million roubles for each activist. The Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ruled on Friday that Russia should release the Arctic Sunrise and its crew.
The case was brought against Russia by the Netherlands, as the Greenpeace ship sailed under a Dutch flag. Russia, however, was dismissive of the ruling. "The situation with the Arctic Sunrise vessel does not fall under the jurisdiction of the tribunal," said a statement issued by the foreign ministry.
Russia refused to take part in the hearings. After watching the result of the tribunal online on Friday evening, the released activists planned to eat a meal together, their first non-prison food for some time. Although the mood is positive, for now the charges of hooliganism are still a threat.
"I'm very hopeful, but it's not over yet," 26-year-old Dutch activist Faiza Oulahsen told the Guardian, after coming off a phone call to her mother. "For now I just want to enjoy my freedom, and the warmth and love of the other Arctic 30 members, and my family."
© Guardian News and Media 2013
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