Russia Claims Semicolon Gives It Right To Hold 30 Arrested Greenpeace Activists

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In September, Russian authorities arrested 30 activists who tried to board an oil rig owned by the $150 billion corporation Gazprom. Now the Netherlands, home to the ship sailed by the activists, has petitioned an obscure, international tribunal to force Russian leader Vladimir Putin to let them go — but the Russians refuse to even attend the hearing.

As their rationale, the Russian officials say that the placement of a semicolon in an international maritime agreement gives them the right to arrest and keep the activists.

The dispute started on September 18 when the Arctic Sunrise, a Dutch icebreaker operated by the environmental protest organization Greenpeace, approached the oil rig off the Russian port of Murmansk in the Arctic Ocean.

Greenpeace activists attempted to reach the rig on rubber rafts launched from the ship. But Russian secret service agents were waiting for them. The agents chased the ship down, dropping onto its deck from helicopters. They seized the ship — and its crew of 28 Greenpeace members, plus a Russian photographer and British videographer.

The Netherlands has appealed to the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, a judicial body created in 1996 to rule on maritime disputes. But in the tribunal’s 17-year history, the Netherlands appeal is only the 22nd case it has ever heard.

The Dutch contend that Putin’s men had no authority to board the Arctic Sunrise, much less take the ship into Russian waters and arrest its crew, who are now referred to by supporters as the “Arctic 30.”

Russia did ratify the UN's Convention on the Law of the Sea, which would seem to prohibit confiscating a foreign vessel and capturing its crew. But Moscow says there was a caveat to its agreement. The exception comes in "disputes concerning law enforcement activities in the exercise of sovereign rights" — a clause usually followed by the specification that such disputes must involve fishing or marine research.

Oil drilling is not included. But the Russians say a semicolon placed after the word “rights” means that it is. The “law enforcement activities” are not limited to the two specified categories the Russians contend, as they would be if a comma followed the word “rights.”

The arrested activists come from 19 different countries, including the United States and Canada.

Though Russia boycotted Wednesday’s hearing, the tribunal is expected to rule on the case Nov. 22.

SOURCES: Washington Post, Der Spiegel, Global News, Wikipedia