Apr 29, 2014
09:00 AM
Connecticut Today

Greenpeace Captain Protesting Russian Arctic Oil Is From Connecticut

Greenpeace International is sending one of its ships, the Rainbow Warrior III, to protest a tanker carrying a shipment that represents the first oil produced at a new Russian offshore platform in the Arctic Circle to Rotterdam. The captain of the ship is Peter Willcox of Norwalk, Connecticut, who was one of 30 people arrested and jailed in Russia for several months after another Greenpeace vessel he was captain of, the Arctic Sunrise, was boarded by Russian commandos in September 2013. This is his first Greenpeace action since that incident. This morning (April 20) Greenpeace posted the following on Twitter:  

Below is our March story on Willcox and his experience being jailed in Russia: 

“It was one large helicopter, there were probably 12 guys on board, and they rappelled out of the helicopter. They didn’t have any insignia on their uniforms, which is much like what you’re hearing about in Ukraine these days. They wore balaclavas, and they had machine guns, they took over the ship quite quickly.”

 

Peter Willcox is not sure if it will be the same.

As he returned to sea this week for the first time since being arrested and jailed in Russia for two months (before being allowed to return to the U.S. as part of the same amnesty that freed members of the protest band Pussy Riot) Greenpeace Captain Peter Willcox wasn't sure what to expect—but he acknowledged that his experience in Russia remains at the forefront of his thoughts. (Above, Willcox stands in a defendant cage in a court in Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg, on November 20, 2013. Photo by Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images.)

The Norwalk resident was one of 30 people arrested and charged with piracy after the Greenpeace vessel he was captain of, the Arctic Sunrise (below), was boarded by Russian commandos last Sept. 19. At the time, the ship was in international waters on a peaceful protest against Arctic oil drilling—having just attempted to attach a banner to an Arctic oil platform operated by Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant.

Willcox and his crewmates became known as the Arctic 30 and their imprisonment sparked international protests like the one pictured below in Budepest on Nov. 16. (Photo by Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images).

Willcox was initially released on bail in November but not allowed to leave until he was granted amnesty a month later, on Dec. 18.

When asked if the experience has changed the way he’ll approach future Greenpeace actions, he says, “I really don’t know. I certainly believe in what we’re doing. I think it’s just as needed now as ever, if not more so." 

He adds, “Will I have second thoughts about doing actions in Russia? Very certainly I will.”

Over last weekend, Willcox headed to Vera Cruz, Mexico, to take command of the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior. The plan was to take the boat to Amsterdam. Willcox couldn’t give many more details about the action than that.

"As I understand, we’re heading up north from Amsterdam,” he says. “I really know almost nothing and I don’t think we’re talking about it at this point.

Willcox, who is in his 60s, is a 33-year veteran of Greenpeace International and is no stranger to trouble coming as result of the high seas protests he performs with the environmental organization. He was captain of the Rainbow Warrior when it was bombed and sunk by French agents in a New Zealand harbor in 1985. Photographer Fernando Pereira drowned as the ship sank. 

Willcox says he has been arrested so many times he has trouble keeping count.

“I’ve been arrested in the Philippines, Turkey, the United States, Peru—I think I’m skipping a few, but that’s all I can think of right now,” he says with a mixture of pride, anger and regret. 

The majority of these arrests resulted in overnight jail stays and minimal fines. But what happened in Russia was different; this time Willcox wasn’t sure if he’d be let out in a matter of months or years. He wondered whether he would ever make it home to see his aging father and stepmother again.

The ordeal began when Russian commandos in unmarked uniforms helicoptered out of the September sky.

“It was one large helicopter, there were probably 12 guys on board, and they rappelled out of the helicopter. They didn’t have any insignia on their uniforms, which is much like what you’re hearing about in Ukraine these days. They wore balaclavas, and they had machine guns, they took over the ship quite quickly," he says. 

Willcox was below deck when the boarding began.

“People were eating dinner. I was down in the gym on the elliptical machine. I heard the engine stop. I didn’t think anything of it because things had been so relaxed all day long,” he says. “I kept my head phones on, and about 30 seconds or a minute later one of the crew members ran up to me and said, ‘They’re trying to board us from a helicopter.’ I went running up to the bridge but by that time it was too late. Once the first one’s on board the game's over because our requirements are that we behave absolutely non-violently, so we can’t push him or try to do anything; he can do what he wants.”

 

Before long, Willcox realized that he and his crew were being charged with piracy and this was not a run-of-the-mill arrest.

“We thought that arrest was possible. We’ve been arrested in Russia, not me personally, but some of our other boats have done actions up there,” he says. “They’ve been arrested, they’ve been towed to Murmansk [a port city in the northwest of Russia], and they’ve been given a $1,000 fine, and told to get out. That’s generally the drill. This time, I guess they were trying to send a slightly stronger message.”

What followed for Willcox was two Kafkaesque months of uncertainty and fear.

“The whole Russian system is set up so the prisoner really knows nothing,” he says. “You’re kept in the dark with just about everything they can possibly keep you in the dark about."

What Willcox did learn of the Russian legal system terrified him even further.

“I watched the investigator more or less plant evidence and really go out of his way to lie and set things up to make us look bad,” he says. “I had to be on the boat when they were looking at it for the investigation, but that didn’t stop them from going and changing things around. In one case the investigator was going through the backpack of the ship’s doctor and found a dried plant. It was a plant she had picked in Norway, she was going to press it for her niece. He held it up in front of all the collected investigators and went, ‘This is a poppy plant.’ That night, in the newspapers, the big story was 'drugs found on the Greenpeace boat.' The plant obviously had less to do with drugs than a tulip does, but that didn’t stop the story from going out and that was pretty chilling when I saw him do that as I was sitting there in handcuffs.”

Ultimately the charges of piracy were dropped against Willcox and his crewmates. He was freed on bail from the SIZO 1 detention centre in Saint Petersburg on Nov. 22 (Below he's pictured leaving the prison; photo by Olga Matseva/AFP/Getty Images). It took about a month more for Russia to pass the amnesty and issue a proper visa for him to leave the country. He arrived back in the U.S. in late December, more than 100 days after the ordeal had began.

Willcox maintains the charges were always baseless and nothing more than an excuse to arrest the crew and seize the boat on international waters.  

"The two strongest rules about a Greenpeace action is that it’s completely nonviolent, and that there is no property damage done to the object of the action,” he says. “Those two stipulations are the reasons we don’t’ get accused of piracy. We don’t do anything that could be considered piratical. The only reason the Russians could board us on the high seas, which is what they did, was if they accused us of piracy; so to make the charge look meaningful that’s what they did, but there was nothing to back it up."

 

Greenpeace Captain Protesting Russian Arctic Oil Is From Connecticut

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