A 29-year-old British journalist has been imprisoned in Russia for two months without trial after filming a Greenpeace protest off the country’s northern coast.
Kieron Bryan, a former videographer for The Times of London, has not been charged with any crime. But a judge in a remote north-west Russian court ordered him to be held, along with 28 Greenpeace activists and a Russian photographer, for two months while authorities investigate charges of piracy.
The long-term detention of the British journalist along with Russian freelance photographer, Denis Sinyakov, has heightened fears ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, that foreign journalists coming to Russia, a country which has proved increasingly hostile to protesters and reporters in recent years, may be at risk of government harassment.
Bryan, a freelance journalist, was hired on a short-term contract by Greenpeace to document a protest against Russian oil exploration in the Arctic Circle. He was on board a ship near a Gazprom oil platform when Russian border agents in balaclavas descended from helicopters, boarded the vessel, and held the crew and passengers at gunpoint.
The ship, called the Arctic Sunrise, was forced to dock at the port of Murmansk on Russia’s northern coast where those on board were taken into custody. Peter Willcox, the ship’s American captain, Bryan, and the other crew and activists from 18 countries, appeared in court in handcuffs on Thursday.
Two of the activists had attempted to board a Russian oil drilling platform on climbing ropes but a Greenpeace official said it was "absurd" to suggest they were engaging in piracy. Even Vladimir Putin, the president, said “obviously they are not pirates” but he insisted that they must be held to account. "Formally they were trying to seize this platform… It is evident that those people violated international law," he said. According to the BBC, the charge of piracy in Russia carries a prison term of up to 15 years.
Tanya Lokshina, the Russian program director for Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Beast that she was shocked by the government’s reaction. “It’s completely unacceptable. We are talking about two journalists who were hired to document something. They have been sent to prison simply for doing their job,” she said, adding that she was worried about their well-being. “Conditions in prison are far from perfect.”
Thousands of journalists from all over the world are due to arrive in Sochi in a few months to cover the Olympic Games, which begin in February. “One of the core values in the Olympic charter is freedom of press,” Lokshina said. The arrest and the charges, she said, “tells a very gruesome story about freedom of the press in Russia and how journalists are treated.”
Bryan specializes in filming short news features. Last year, he reported on the U.S. presidential campaign from Iowa, Chicago, and New Hampshire.
Hattie Garlick, 29, a close friend of Bryan's, said she was deeply concerned for his well-being. "Kieron is an outstanding and principled journalist as well as a kind and peaceable man. For him to be accused of piracy is unbelievable and deeply worrying," she said. "I know all his friends are holding their breath, waiting for news of him."
The British and other Western governments are believed to be lobbying the Russian authorities to release the journalists. Human rights campaigners said they had expected the foreign nationals to be deported but not held in custody.
“It is unconscionable that the Russian authorities have yet again arrested and held a journalist without charge,” a former colleague of Bryan's at the Times, Arion McNicoll said. “In light of the recent article by Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, underlining the mistreatment of prisoners in the ‘care’ of the Russian justice system, we must be genuinely concerned for Kieron’s safety.”
Bryan, who lives in London, has not been able to speak to his family according to an official at Greenpeace, who said legal assistance was being provided for all 30 of the people detained.
“The decision to detain Kieron and the other activists is a total over-reaction to a peaceful protest,” said Ben Ayliffe, head of global Arctic Campaign. “Our focus now is on supporting Kieron’s family, and the families of the other 28 activists and freelance photographer being held, and galvanizing public opinion to bring pressure on the Russian authorities to release them.”