Greenpeace activists start to head home

By Olga Maltseva in St Petersburg

Dutch Greenpeace activist Mannes Ubels celebrates after getting his exit visa from Russia. Photo / AP
Dutch Greenpeace activist Mannes Ubels celebrates after getting his exit visa from Russia. Photo / AP

A first Greenpeace activist was yesterday on a train out of Russia, more than three months after he was arrested with 29 fellow crew members of a ship protesting against Arctic oil drilling.

Dmitri Litvinov, a Swedish-American of Russian origin, left St Petersburg for Finland's capital, Helsinki, on a train after Russia issued exit visas for 14 of the crew following a pardon by President Vladimir Putin.

Most of the activists who received visas were expected to leave Russia overnight, according to Greenpeace.

Russian authorities earlier dropped the criminal case against the last member of the 30-strong team, which included New Zealanders Jon Beauchamp and David Haussmann, in a move widely seen as an attempt by the Kremlin to improve Russia's image before the Winter Olympic Games in February in the Black Sea city of Sochi.

Litvinov, the son of former Soviet dissident Pavel Litvinov and great-grandson of one of Stalin's foreign ministers, had received the exit visa allowing him to leave Russia earlier in the day.

Greenpeace said he had no regrets about the Arctic protest.

"I'm leaving Russia with mixed feelings," Litvinov said before his departure.

"On one hand, I feel relieved that everything is over, on the other there is a feeling of injustice because we're considered criminals.

"The case against us has been dropped but things are not over," he added, expressing "concern for the others who live in Russia".

He was unsure if he would be allowed to return to Russia.

Greenpeace now expects Russian investigators to return the equipment seized during the operation against its activists, as well as the ship Arctic Sunrise, which is still being held in the northwestern city of Murmansk.

Thirteen Greenpeace activists and a British video journalist have been issued transit visas allowing them to leave Russia and go home after their ordeal, which began on September 19.

Activists showed off their passports stamped with transit visas to journalists outside the migration services offices in St Petersburg, Russia's second city, where they have been staying for more than a month.

Russian coastguards boarded the Arctic Sunrise on September 19 and had it towed to Murmansk.

The crew were accused of piracy and hooliganism, and spent almost two months in jail in and around Murmansk.

In November, they were put on a train and moved to St Petersburg.

The charge of piracy, punishable by up to 15 years in prison, was eventually dropped, leaving the lesser accusation of hooliganism, which carries a punishment of up to seven years.

Putin has said the activists, several of whom tried to scale energy giant Gazprom's Prirazlomnaya oil rig in the Barents Sea, broke the law and were seeking publicity but were "not pirates".

Several Western leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, had expressed concern over the activists' detention, and celebrities including former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney had pressed for their release.

A United Nations maritime court in Germany also ruled in favour of a complaint lodged by the Netherlands and ordered Russia to release the crew and the Dutch-flagged ship, but Russia ignored the decision.

- AFP

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