Amidst international criticism of Russia’s human rights crackdown ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, the country’s parliament has approved a mass amnesty for as many as 22,000 prisoners. The move is officially meant to mark the 20th anniversary of the passage of Russia’s post-Soviet constitution. Among the tens of thousands set to be released are the Arctic 30, members of Greenpeace who were arrested in September after trying to stop Russian oil drilling in the Arctic. “We’re glad it happened, but we’re still wondering why we need to be amnestied for something we didn’t do,” says Peter Willcox, who was the captain of the Arctic Sunrise and has worked with Greenpeace for decades. “According to the World Court, we were arrested illegally on the high seas, illegally brought into Russia, and illegally detained.” Willcox joins us from St. Petersburg, Russia, along with Dimitri Litvinov, a Russian-born U.S. and Swedish citizen who has worked with Greenpeace since 1989.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree pardoning the country’s former richest man. Amnesty International had declared Mikhail Khodorkovsky a prisoner of conscience. He spent more than a decade behind bars after he fell into disfavor with Putin.
The release comes as the Russian Parliament voted Wednesday to approve a mass amnesty for thousands more prisoners. Up to 22,000 are set to be eventually freed under an initiative Putin says is meant to mark the 20th anniversary of the passage of Russia’s post-Soviet constitution. Critics say Putin also hopes to deflect international criticism of his human rights crackdown ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
AMY GOODMAN: Among the tens of thousands set to be released are members of the punk group Pussy Riot, as well as the Greenpeace Arctic 30, who were arrested in September after trying to stop Russian oil drilling in the Arctic. After the vote, Arctic 30 member Frank Hewetson said the fate of the Arctic remains unchanged.
FRANK HEWETSON: We’re very happy. We just hope it doesn’t take too long for us to actually have our passports stamped with the correct visa and returned back to our countries. We might have been given amnesty today, but there’s no amnesty for the Arctic. These companies need to be stopped.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested the Greenpeace activists may have been acting at the behest of a foreign country in an attempt to undermine Russia’s development of Arctic energy resources. Putin did not name the country.
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] As for the fact that they are covered by amnesty—and as far as I know, they are covered by it—we are not doing it for them. But if they are covered, that’s good. I think what’s happened should be a lesson and that we should both, I hope—Greenpeace, as well—turn to positive work in order to make noise. But in order to minimize environmental risks, if such risks appear, we are ready for such joint work, including work with Greenpeace.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the amnesty, we go to Saint Petersburg, Russia, where we’re joined by two of the Arctic 30 activists. Peter Willcox was the captain of the Arctic Sunrise and has worked with Greenpeace for decades. Dimitri Litvinov, who is a Russian-born U.S. and Swedish citizen, has worked with Greenpeace since 1989.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s start with Peter Willcox. Your response to the amnesty that you all have been granted?
PETER WILLCOX: Well, we’re glad it happened, but we’re still wondering why we need to be amnestied for something we didn’t do. According to the World Court, we were arrested illegally on the high seas, illegally brought into Russia and illegally detained. So we don’t feel, A, that we have anything to apologize for or, B, that we need amnesty for.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this suggestion by President Putin that you are acting at the behest of some foreign government?
PETER WILLCOX: That just seems like such a silly and stupid claim that I really don’t need to respond to it. Greenpeace’ books are open, our fundraising. We don’t even accept corporate or government sponsorships of any kind. So such a claim is just ludicrous.
AMY GOODMAN: Dmitri Litvinov, can you talk about what it is that you did, that you were first charged for? And then, how long were you held for before you were granted bail, and then, now, of course, the amnesty decision?
DIMITRI LITVINOV: Well, what we did and what we were charged for are two completely different things. We went out to the Russian Arctic in order to shine the light on the destructive activities that are being carried out there by the Russian and foreign oil companies. There is a rush for the Arctic shelf right now, that has now become navigable due to climate change, and oil companies are rushing in there in order to start drilling for oil. This is in an area which has extreme meteorological conditions and which has very difficult navigational conditions, and where there’s practically no infrastructure for cleanup in case of—or, rather, I should say, when an oil spill would occur. And, well, we saw—I heard earlier today you were speaking about the Gulf of Mexico. We saw what happened in the Gulf of Mexico, where even under the most favorable conditions we saw very, very difficult environmental results. If such a spill were to occur in the Arctic, it would be absolutely catastrophic. So, the purpose of us sending a ship and going there earlier this year was in order to bring attention to the problem and to carry out peaceful, nonviolent protest, as we have been doing all around the Arctic region. We have protested off of Greenland, off of Norway, off of Alaska, etc. It’s not a Russian problem; it’s unfortunately a global problem.
The charges that were brought against us, to start with, were—the first one was that of piracy. We were accused of an armed takeover of a ship for personal gain. Each one of the elements of that sentence had nothing to do with what we did. It was no takeover. There was no ship. And there was certainly no personal gain involved. We have spent, altogether, two months, one of us actually a bit longer, in detention first in a prison, in a jail in Murmansk, in the north of Russia, and then subsequently two weeks in Saint Petersburg. We’ve been released a little bit or over three weeks ago. And since then, we’ve been kept—well, I should say, in a much bigger and more comfortable cell: We’re still detained in Russia, but we’re at least allowed to be staying in a hotel and to talk to each other.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Dimitri, I wanted to ask you—at the time you were jailed, your father wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post urging your release. And the piece was titled “My Son, Facing Russian Prison for a Peaceful Protest.” In it, he wrote that “Dima has the sad distinction of possibly becoming the third generation of political prisoners in our family.” Can you tell us something about the history of your family and these run-ins with authorities because of its political involvement?
DIMITRI LITVINOV: Sure. I think, actually, Dad got it a little bit wrong. I think, actually, it’s the fourth generation, if we’re going to really count. My great-grandfather was one of the leading communists before the revolution, and so he opposed the tsar’s regime and ended up being prosecuted for that. He subsequently became one of the closest collaborators of Stalin and Lenin, was actually a foreign minister under Stalin. My grandfather was accused for a political crime and spent years and years in prison during Stalin’s time. His fate was described in a number of books by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And then my father went on a protest demonstration against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet tanks in 1968, together with six other people. The seven people got fairly hard sentences. My father spent five years in Siberia. The whole family went there. I went to school there. My sister was born there. In fact, the first time that I was ever arrested for a Greenpeace action in Russia, my grandfather gave an interview where he was asked, “What do you think about your grandson going—getting arrested, and by the KGB at that point?” And he said, “Well, it’s the third generation going to prison for a good thing.”
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Willcox, can you share your history? You go way back to the first Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior. Talk about what happened there.
PETER WILLCOX: Well, like Dima, I’m sort of a third-generation activist. My grandparents and mother were all before the House Un-American Activities Committee. My grandfather lost his company because of his leading a peace delegation to China in 1952. And I started with Greenpeace—I started working on boats for the environment in 1973. I joined Greenpeace in ’81 and, yes, was on the first Rainbow Warrior when it was blown up by the French in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1985.
AMY GOODMAN: Just tell us briefly, for people who don’t know that history—talk about what French intelligence did.
PETER WILLCOX: Well, the French intelligence service was ordered by Mitterand to stop Greenpeace from going to French Polynesia and protesting the nuclear testing issues there. We had just come from the U.S. Marshall Islands, where, thanks to the U.S. testing program, we had had to move a group of about 350 islanders from their purposely contaminated island to a slightly safer one. We went to New Zealand to prepare to go to French Polynesia, and the French decided to anticipate us. The first bomb blew a six-by-seven-foot hole in side of the hull. The second bomb that went off about 45 seconds later trapped our photographer, Fernando Pereira, in his cabin and killed him. He was the only crew member with two children, and his murder certainly ripped a hole in their lives that really has never been repaired.
AMY GOODMAN: And then talk about what happened to you. While you’ve been granted amnesty, you were jailed. Can—starting with Peter, can you both describe your time in jail and what—where you go from here?
PETER WILLCOX: Well, when you’re held in Russia, under investigation for a crime, it’s called “isolation.” And you’re in one cell 23 hours a day. You supposedly have about an hour in an exercise cell, which is only slightly bigger than the cell you were first kept in. And you’re really isolated from all your family, colleagues. It was a month before I was able to speak to my wife. It was almost a month before I was able to speak to my lawyer. Yeah, you’re in isolation.
DIMITRI LITVINOV: I can add to that. I mean, I think that, absolutely, isolation is the worst—one of the worst elements of being held in the prison. I mean, the physical conditions were not the main part of the problem. Oh, sure, it was crap food and, you know, very cold at night, and you only got 15 minutes of shower per week. But that—that you can live with. You know, we can live in fairly tough field conditions. The worst thing is the psychological pressure. I think what Peter is talking about, this isolation, was one of the—one of these very strong elements of pressure that made life very hard.
Another one is this uncertainty. You don’t know what’s coming. You don’t know how long you’re going to be sitting there. You don’t know how it will result. And on one hand, the rational part of your mind says, “Well, this is impossible. Even in Putin’s Russia, they cannot lock 30 people for something they didn’t do for 10 to 15 years,” which is what the first sentence was that we were looking at, you know, 19 of them foreigners. It’s just not acceptable. It’s not going to happen. But then you’re—
PETER WILLCOX: But then you’re in jail.
DIMITRI LITVINOV: Then you’re in jail.
PETER WILLCOX: We told ourselves that the first day, and that night we were in jail.
DIMITRI LITVINOV: Exactly. And then, you know—and you go to an investigation, and you see—and you see these very serious men in very serious uniforms and very—telling you absolutely seriously, “We are convinced that you’re pirates.”
PETER WILLCOX: The most—the most bizarre evidence. They claimed that we weren’t really environmentalists. They claimed that we led an armed attack on the rig. I mean, the first rule about a Greenpeace demonstration is, is that it’s nonviolent. The second rule is that there’s absolutely no property damage to the object of the action or demonstration. And you do these things, and these are the kinds of things that prevent a reasonable prosecutor from even thinking of the word “piracy.” So, on one hand, it seems so absurd; on the other hand, you’re sitting in detention, you’re sitting in jail.
DIMITRI LITVINOV: And there you are.
PETER WILLCOX: And you’re facing 10 to 15 years.
DIMITRI LITVINOV: And you don’t know when it’s going to end. So that’s the second. And the last thing, I think, kind of very much along those lines, is just this feeling of this is so unfair, this is so unjust, you know? We didn’t do anything wrong that is anywhere near the kind of response that we were getting. And—
PETER WILLCOX: We didn’t do anything we hadn’t done the year before.
DIMITRI LITVINOV: Exactly. So, I mean, we met a lot of people in prison, our cellmates. And some of them—most of them were in there for a crime, or at least reasonably suspected for a crime. And these are nice enough fellows, and, you know, some of them were—you know, probably should have been treated more easily than they were, or whatever, but there was a crime committed. So there was a reason why they were locked up. For the 30 of us, it was this feeling that they have no reason, it’s so unfair. So I think those three pieces of psychological pressure, for me, at least, was the hardest thing to deal with: the isolation, the uncertainty and the unfairness.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dimitri, I wanted to ask you about this decision of the Russian government, as many as 20,000 people amnestied. Do you see this as any kind of a major shift in the increasing authoritarianism of the Putin government, or is this more a public relations ploy in the run-up to the Winter Games, the Winter Olympics?
DIMITRI LITVINOV: I don’t claim to be any sort of political analyst, Juan, so I’m not even going to try to answer that question. I’m just very happy that we get to go home soon, even though there is this sour aftertaste, as Peter said, that, you know, we shouldn’t have been arrested, to start with. And we should not be given an amnesty; we should be given an apology and a medal, in my opinion.
PETER WILLCOX: And we’re still most concerned about the fate of our four Russian colleagues—
DIMITRI LITVINOV: Indeed.
PETER WILLCOX: —that have to continue to live here, and now they may have criminal records hanging over their heads. So that’s something that worries us a lot.
DIMITRI LITVINOV: Absolutely. And as far as your question is concerned, well, as far as I understand, quite a number of those prisoners are—that are to be released, are indeed what will be qualified and is qualified as political prisoners. But then there are also just people who have been arrested for a violent crime or some other type of crime, and this is an amnesty that is associated, I understand, with the 20th anniversary of Russian constitution, some sort of magnanimous act. And, look, after those two months in prison, if peoples—if people are being released, you know, from—I’m glad for them. You know, no matter what crime they have committed, for them personally, I am glad that they don’t have to be sitting in those conditions that we were sitting in.
AMY GOODMAN: When Democracy Now! was in Warsaw last month to cover the U.N. climate summit, I had a chance to sit down with Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo, Kumi who was involved with last year’s action. You were pointing out, Peter, they did not get arrested. Maybe they didn’t get arrested because he’s the executive director involved with trying to stop Arctic drilling by Gazprom. He talked about how energy companies should respond to global warming concerns.
KUMI NAIDOO: We would say to all energy company leaders, right, from Gazprom to Shell to ExxonMobil and all the rest, as Greenpeace, when we look at you, we see you as an energy company. As an energy company, we cannot blame you, 20 years ago or, say, even 15 years ago, for building energy based on oil, coal and gas. However, now, you need to understand that the scientific consensus is completely clear, and even if the science was not clear, the last decade has seen more than a 10 percent increase in extreme weather events, the very events that the scientists say that that’s how climate change will be looking at. So now you do not have an excuse. The facts are before you. And you need to understand that every cent that you invest in new projects is an investment in the death of our children and their children and future generations.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace executive director. Let’s end with Peter Willcox, captain of the Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise. Where do you go from here?
PETER WILLCOX: Well, I guess the biggest feeling is, is that we don’t stop. For me, stopping means turning over the planet to the oil companies, and I’m not nearly willing to do that. When I started working for environmental groups 40 years ago, I thought this was going to be a fairly easy problem to solve. I was on the Hudson River working on Pete Seeger’s boat. Now, as Kumi pointed out, I am scared for the future of my kids. And stopping, quitting, is not—doesn’t even come close to being an option.
AMY GOODMAN: And Dimitri Litvinov?
DIMITRI LITVINOV: Well, I mean, I can only echo what Peter said. I mean, this—the fight is going to continue. We have no choice, if we’re going to survive.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Dimitri Litvinov is one of the Arctic 30 activists. Peter Willcox is captain of the Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise ship. Today, Russia granted amnesty to 20,000 people, among them the Arctic 30, 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists who were covering them, among many others.
When we come back, we stick with the issue of drilling, but this time in the Amazon, Amazon justice. According Canada rules, Ecuadorean farmers and fishermen can try to seize the assets of oil giant Chevron based on a 2011 decision that found the company liable for billions for oil pollution. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.