ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - The first of 30 people arrested by Russian coast guards during a Greenpeace protest against Arctic oil drilling walked free on bail on Wednesday, brandishing a sheet of paper with the words “Free the Arctic” written on it.
Brazilian Ana Paula Alminhana Maciel, one of 28 activists and two journalists whose arrest drew international criticism for President Vladimir Putin, smiled as she left a detention center in St Petersburg. Asked how she felt, she said simply “happy” before being driven off by a Greenpeace representative.
Twenty of those detained on September 18 have now been granted bail this week following criticism of Putin over what was widely seen in the West as their harsh treatment, though the others have yet to be freed. All previous bail requests had been refused.
Freelance journalist Denis Sinyakov, who was also on board, was expected to be freed on bail on Thursday, his lawyer said.
None of those in pre-trial detention have their passports, and Greenpeace said it was not clear how much their movement would be restricted.
One of the 30 had his detention extended by three months on Monday, and all of those aboard the Arctic Sunrise icebreaker during the protest at a Russian oil rig could still face seven-year jail terms on hooliganism charges.
In a sign of an easing of their treatment, however, Russian courts granted eight activists bail on Wednesday, including the pilot of the Greenpeace icebreaker who steered the vessel to the Gazprom-owned Prirazlomnaya oil platform, where several activists tried to scale the structure.
Armed coast guards ended the protest, detaining everyone on board the boat and seizing the ship.
Asked whether the decision to grant him bail pleased him, Captain Peter Willcox, looking tired and wearing a white and purple checkered shirt, said: “Very, very much.”
He was then led out of the courtroom in handcuffs by four policemen.
Willcox, 60, has been a Greenpeace activist for more than 30 years and was the skipper of the environmental advocacy group’s ship Rainbow Warrior when it was blown up and sunk by the French secret service in 1985.
Also granted bail in the city of St. Petersburg were three Britons, Alexandra Harris, Kieron Bryan and Anthony Perrett, Anne Mie Roer Jensen from Denmark, Faiza Oulahsen and Mannes Ubels from the Netherlands and Marco Weber from Switzerland, Greenpeace said. Bail was set at 2 million roubles ($61,100).
“I‘m going to enjoy the fact that I can walk more than just three yards in the cell, and some fresh air,” said Oulahsen from the courtroom cage where she had followed the proceedings.
“I‘m going to have a good meal, and I‘m going to call my family because I haven’t spoken to them in more than two months.”
Of the 21 people who have appeared in court hearings so far this week, only Australian Colin Russell has had his detention extended. Greenpeace says it is baffled by the decision to keep Russell, 59, in custody for three more months.
The arrests of the activists have unleashed international criticism of Putin, now in his third term as president, and the initial charges of piracy - which carried a 15-year jail term - were dropped.
Greenpeace says the protest was meant to draw attention to the impact of offshore Arctic drilling on the environment.
Investigators have sought three-month extensions of detention for the activists from 18 countries, but the Kremlin may believe releasing some on bail could ease criticism of Russia, which hosts the Winter Olympics in February.
($1 = 32.7265 Russian roubles)
Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Writing by Thomas Grove; editing by Ralph Boulton