A group of environmental activists from Greenpeace were recently granted bail in Russia after two months in detention for attempting to protest on an oil rig in arctic waters. Peter Willcox, the American captain of the Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise, talks to David Greene about the experience when he and his crew were arrested by Russian commandos in the Pechora Sea, north of Russia.
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There are also environmental concerns about drilling in the Arctic. And in Russia, some Greenpeace activists were recently granted bail after two months in detention for protesting at a Russian oil rig in Arctic waters.
In September, the Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise was seized by Russian authorities, who arrested the 30-member crew. The ship's captain, American Peter Wilcox, recounts the scene.
CAPT. PETER WILCOX: Well, it's about 6 in the evening. Things were relaxed. I was down in the hold on an elliptical machine, and I heard the engines stop. And thought, well, if it's important, they'll come get me. And about 10 seconds later, somebody came flying into the gym and said, oh, my God. They're trying to land on us with a helicopter.
GREENE: Out of that helicopter came Russian Special Forces, wearing masks, armed with machine guns.
WILCOX: They rounded everybody up. The crew were kneeling on the deck, with their hands behind their heads. They pushed them all down into the mess. They took control of the ship.
GREENE: The ship was towed to Murmansk, a Russian port above the Arctic Circle. And on the journey, the Russian commandos picked through the crew's possessions.
WILCOX: My crew has reported it that the first they did was steal everybody's liquor bottles out of their cabin. And it seems like they went pretty hard at it that night.
GREENE: For your crew to have Russian commandos who are armed wandering around the ship drinking alcohol, that doesn't exactly sound entirely safe.
WILCOX: No, and I'm not saying anybody enjoyed it. But it's not the end of the world, either.
GREENE: What was significant was that Wilcox and his crew were charged with piracy. That could mean 15 years in a Russian prison. This began their two months in detention.
WILCOX: In Russia, it's in isolation. So, you're locked in a cell 23 hours a day, not allowed to see any of your co-conspirators - or whatever we were.
GREENE: How were you treated?
WILCOX: Pretty well. I mean, you know, you're in detention; and there are rules, and you're going to follow the rules, and you're going to stay in your cell for 23 hours a day; and you're going to get maybe an hour of exercise a day in another cell, which is about 15 feet by 15 feet and covered with about four different layers of corrugated steel, and then a leaky roof over it so that you can't see any sky.
GREENE: Eventually, the crew heard their charges could be reduced to hooliganism. Wilcox was transferred to a facility in St. Petersburg, where he tasted a Russian tradition: the sharing of food. Neighbors do it, train passengers do it, apparently prisoners do it. Wilcox's cellmate got deliveries from his family.
WILCOX: What he got was peppers, garlic, onions. He would also get some meat. We had a small immersion heater - actually, two of them - in our cabin, so we could make a big bowl of soup in about 45 minutes that was really tasty. And my cellmate, who was a guy who's probably facing 20 years in the gulag because he was selling drugs, took care of me.
GREENE: Well, Captain, you, we should say, are not out of the woods yet. I mean, you're out on bail, but the charge of hooliganism in Russia carries a sentence of up to seven years. I mean, what is your emotional state right now, as you think about the future?
WILCOX: Well, my emotional state's pretty good, at the moment. I think we're so happy to be out of jail. There's still a lot of uncertainty. I think there's a feeling here that we'll be gotten rid of before the Olympics.
GREENE: Speculation that Russia might want not all of you there still held when they're trying to make things look pretty for the world during the Olympics.
WILCOX: That's right. And that's my hope. But I also remember sitting back in Murmansk, going there's no way they're going to arrest 30 of us. That would just be crazy, stupid. Yeah. The next day, we were in jail.
GREENE: He's out on bail, can't leave Russia, but he's used to the dangers that come with activism. In 1985, Wilcox was captain of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior. It was in New Zealand, heading to protest French nuclear tests when it was bombed by French agents. A photographer onboard was killed.
WILCOX: Just as in 1985, we thought if we've scared a first-world government so badly, a bunch of hippies on an old steel boat, that they're willing to kill us, we must be doing something right. My way of looking at things now is that I am so scared for the future of my kids. I'm so scared about the repercussions of global warming and climate change, that if somebody had told me three months ago you'll be arrested for two months and kept in jail, I'd say OK. Now, the difficult thing was the uncertainty of knowing what was happening. And I would not have done this action if I thought I was seriously going to be charged and have a possibility of going to jail for 15 years.
GREENE: You know, by saying that you - had you known that 15 years in prison might be a possibility, you might not have done this, in a way, do you worry that that was the message the Russia wanted to try and send to you?
WILCOX: You know, I haven't thought about it that way. I'm sure that they wanted to let us know that right now, the game has changed, and I hear it. I mean, I think private citizens have a right to stand up and voice their opinions. And if they think we crossed the line, OK, I expect that, but I'm not backing down. And I'm not saying I would do this again next year. But the stakes are too high.
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GREENE: That is Greenpeace activist and ship Captain Peter Wilcox, who is out on bail, but awaiting trial in St. Petersburg, Russia. And you're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.