The Kremlin said Saturday that 30 Greenpeace crew members held after a protest in Arctic waters could be allowed to leave Russia, but the international activist group greeted the statement warily.
“As soon as the issue of how they can leave Russia is resolved they will leave,” Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov said, according to a RIA-Novosti agency report.
“Nobody will hold them,” he said.
Ivanov did not elaborate, but Interfax news agency reported that the issue hindering the crew members’ departure is their lack of Russian visas.
The crew were seized by Russian security forces off a Greenpeace ship in the Barents Sea after a September protest on a Gazprom oil rig, brought to Russia and charged in Russian courts with piracy, later reduced to hooliganism. All but one of the activists have been granted bail.
It was the first time since the beginning of the affair in mid-September that a high-ranking Russian official has suggested the foreigners of 16 nationalities making up the Greenpeace crew could leave Russia.
Ivanov’s comments came after an international maritime court on Friday ordered Russia to immediately release the crew and their Dutch-flagged ship in exchange for a 3.6-million-euro ($4.9-million) bond.
Russia says it does not recognise the court as having a right to rule on the matter.
Ivanov said Russia will not react to the ruling.
“The issue will be solved… according to Russian laws, not somebody’s political wishes,” he said.
A Saint Petersburg court this week gave bail to all but one Australian member of the crew with the proviso they remain in Russia to answer charges of hooliganism.
A Greenpeace lawyer, Anton Beneslavski, said Ivanov’s comments should be treated with caution given the legal process underway.
Another Greenpeace lawyer, Mikhail Kreindlin, told AFP: “Nobody really understands their (visa) status.”
He added that local migration officers told him they would grant transit visas to the foreigners only after all charges are lifted.
“They don’t have visas, they were registered by migration officials in a hotel, but they are free to move around,” the lawyer said.
Russia’s Winter Olympics approaching
The comments by the Kremlin chief of staff were seen as a possible sign that Russia is ready to ease up on the issue as it prepares to put on its best face for the Sochi Winter Olympics, to begin in two and a half months’ time.
The Greenpeace affair has sparked criticism in the West and prompted celebrities such as Madonna and Paul McCartney to appeal for the crew’s freedom.
The crew members, which include two freelance journalists hired by Greenpeace, were initially charged with the heavier crime of piracy, but investigators later dropped that for the hooliganism charge.
The ship Arctic Sunrise is detained at port in the Russian northern city of Murmansk.
Australian Colin Russel, the ship’s radio operator whose case was the first to be heard in a series of court proceedings this week, was denied bail and ordered to remain in the Saint Petersburg jail for another three months.
One of the people to go before the judge Friday, British national Philip Ball, was granted bail but has not walked out of the jail yet due to a technicality, Kreindlin said.
A British videojournalist among the crew, Kieron Bryan, told the BBC in an interview that the original piracy charge had been met with laughter.
The 29-year-old also said that the 24 hours following his own bailed release from prison were “incredible” and “the best moments” of his life.