First Greenpeace activists get visas to leave Russia
(AFP) Russia on Thursday started issuing visas to the foreign crew of a Greenpeace protest ship and dropped the criminal case against the last member of the 30-strong team.
Thirteen Greenpeace activists and a British video journalist were issued transit visas allowing them to leave Russia and go home after a three-month ordeal sparked by a protest against Arctic oil drilling in September.
"Fourteen people have been given a visa," Greenpeace spokesman Arin de Hoog stated. "They will depart from Russia in the coming days."
Activists showed off their passports stamped with transit visas to journalists outside the migration services offices in Saint Petersburg, Russia's second city, where they have been staying for over a month.
Italy's Christian d'Alessandro was notified Thursday by investigators that the case against him had been closed.
Earlier this week, Russia closed the cases of the other 29 crew members of Greenpeace's Arctic Sunrise ship under an amnesty widely seen as the Kremlin's attempt to improve Russia's image ahead of the Winter Olympic Games in February in its Black Sea city of Sochi.
Russian migration services could not say how long the processing of the documents for the foreigners will take, but Greenpeace said it expected that all the necessary visas would be issued by the end of Friday.
"More than 20 people from the Arctic Sunrise crew applied for visa documents," a spokesman at the migration service said. But he added that the service could not guarantee that all the activists would get home before year's end.
"We're not sure how it will turn out. But we are hoping that things will be in favour of the Greenpeace activists," the spokesman stated.
The crew also includes four Russian activists whose criminal cases had been dropped on Wednesday.
Russian border guards boarded the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise on September 19 and had it towed to the Arctic port of Murmansk.
The crew, which included two journalists, were accused of piracy and hooliganism, and spent almost two months in jail in and around the Arctic city of Murmansk. In November, they were put on a train and moved to Saint 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 that the activists, several of which attempted 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, expressed concern over the activists' detention, and celebrities including former Beatle Paul McCartney had pressed for their release.
A UN 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.