Behind bars: Digital media expert Alex Harris. Photo: Denis Sinyakov /Greenpeace Inter
Alex Harris was to have been back at work on Monday, sitting at her usual spot in the heart of Greenpeace Australia’s cavernous office in Ultimo.
Instead the 27-year old digital media expert is behind bars in the far northern Russian city of Murmansk, her empty desk – decorated with pictures of Arctic wildlife – a mute reminder to Sydney colleagues of the perils she now faces.
”She hoped to see polar bears,” her British mother told the BBC. ”She did not envisage this sort of thing would happen.”
Charged: Greenpeace international radio operator Colin Russell. Photo: Reuters/Greenpeace
Also languishing in Murmansk is 59-year-old radio operator Colin Russell, awaited at home near Hobart by wife Christine and daughter Maddie. Their wait could be a long one.
Mr Russell and Ms Harris, along with 28 other members of a group now dubbed the ”Arctic 30”, have been charged with piracy following a Greenpeace attempt to disrupt the first sinking of an offshore oil well by a Russian company in the icy waters north of the Arctic Circle.
It has been an abrupt and shattering end to a voyage which started for the group on September 14, when their vessel, the Arctic Sunrise, set out from Kirkenes in Norway, heading for the Prirazlomnaya oil platform in the south-eastern part of the Barents Sea.
The platform, owned by Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom, was gearing up to plunge the first of 40 wells into the ocean bed below the freezing waters, which are typically ice-bound for more than half the year.
Greenpeace wanted not only to draw the world’s attention to the Russian venture, but also send a signal to other energy giants such as Shell which are eagerly eyeing the billions of tons of Arctic oil reserves that are becoming more accessible as the world warms, and the ice thins.
”[We] are here to peacefully protest against the Arctic oil rush, which threatens great harm to the Arctic environment, as well as extracting more oil that humanity cannot afford to burn” posted Argentinian Camila Speziale, the youngest on board the ship, on September 18.
Later that day the Greenpeace vessel launched four inflatables towards the towering platform. Two activists reached the structure’s base and started climbing, but security guards struck back, training powerful hoses on the pair while balaclava-wearing members of the Russian coastguard and security forces fired shots and surrounded the Greenpeace craft.
The two climbers were seized. The Greenpeace mothership pulled back into an area it considered more secure – still inside Russia’s exclusive economic zone but beyond its legally-defined territorial waters.
Any notion of relative safety, however, was shattered next day when Russian helicopters appeared above the ship and agents rappelled onto the deck.
Ms Harris and two others barricaded themselves inside the radio room. For a few minutes, Ms Harris tweeted live updates before the Russians broke through the door.
The ship’s occupants were herded into the mess and kept under armed guard for five days while they were towed into Murmansk. From there they were taken ashore, interrogated and split up between separate secure locations. By late this week, all had been charged with piracy.
The charges, which if proven carry a 10- to 15-year prison sentence in Russia, have shocked Greenpeace, which saw itself as conducting a peaceful protest.
”It is an extraordinary and outrageous action,” head of Greenpeace Australia David Ritter said. ” It is an attack on conscience, a disproportionate attempt to silence dissent, either directly or by proxy on behalf of the fossil fuel industry.”
James Lorenz, local head of Greenpeace communications and the man who nominated Ms Harris for the team put together for the expedition, says ”everyone is really proud of Alex but scared for her at the same time; there is an enormous amount of concern in the office”.
Mr Russell’s wife has refused interviews but released a brief statement saying ”we’re really missing Colin and we just need him home”.
The British government is providing consular help to Ms Harris, who has been in Sydney nearly three years.
The Australian government has sent a consular official to assist Mr Russell in Murmansk, where Greenpeace has a legal team on the ground.
So far Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has deflected all questions to officials.