Criminalizing dissent, undermining democracy

Thirty Greenpeace activists are held in preventive detention in Russia following a peaceful protest against oil drilling in the Arctic. They took action against a Gazprom platform because they know it is wrong to exploit melting ice to drill for more oil that is already warming the world.

The Arctic Sunrise was boarded and seizure in international waters. And the ‘Artic 30’, including a freelance photographer and a freelance videographer, were refused bail and charged with piracy. This accusation carries a maximum 15 year jail sentence. And they may wait a total of two months behind bars, before the trial.

An array of Russian jurists, and experts in International Law of the Sea, commented on the charges against the activists, and strongly rejected the application of the piracy charge.

Under the Russian Criminal Code, piracy can only be committed against a vessel, not against an oil platform, and only applies to those who use violence (or threats) to seize property. Not to peaceful protest. Similarly, the International Law of the Sea defines piracy as violent acts committed against ships or aircrafts for private ends.

The charge of piracy had most probably a double aim. Firstly, create a retroactive justification for the boarding of the vessel outside Russian territorial waters (this is one of the few grounds on which such a boarding is legally allowed). And secondly, prevent others from engaging in similar actions.

Yesterday Russia dropped the piracy claims. Now they are charged with ‘hooliganism’ and some of them, accused of using force against police.

In both cases, this is an extreme example of a growing trend: the criminalization of peaceful protest and of dissent worldwide. A recent report is really illustrative in this regard. Its title is Take Back the Streets: Repression and Criminalization of Protest around the World and has been crafted by nine civil rights organizations in diverse countries.

What this report and others show is a disproportionate use of State force to crackdown peaceful protests and demonstrations. This includes surveillance, infiltration and use of ‘agent provocateurs’; new weapons and powers for police forces; arrests grounded in unjustified charges; violence, and intimidation though the charging of grave crimes.

It is happening in Russia and many other countries. Even democracies are trying to restrict channels of expression, protest and political participation to a vote in elections. Other channels and forms of expression and protest are increasingly criminalized.

But the freedom of expression and the right to organize and protest are an integral part of what we call democracy. Civil society has a right to make its voice heard. Attempts to misuse Law (national and/or international) and use intimidation tactics to halt those voices are grave threats to the foundation of Law and democracy and all of us should be concerned.

Greenpeace is strongly pushing for the liberation of the Artic 30 and the Arctic Sunrise and to defend the right to peaceful protest. If you are concerned with this issue and want to help, just enter Greenpeace website and choose whatever action you prefer.

They are only activists.