ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Russian courts granted bail to nine jailed foreign Greenpeace activists on Tuesday, a turnaround in Russia’s treatment of 30 people facing trial over a protest against Arctic oil drilling.
Activists from New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Italy, France, Finland and Poland were each granted a 2 million rouble ($61,300) bail in hearings over their detention since the September protest at an offshore Russian oil rig.
But Greenpeace said it remains unclear whether they will be allowed to go back home.
One other activist has been ordered held in further pre-trial detention. All 30 face up to seven years in prison if convicted.
But the rulings signalled a shift in Russia’s handling of the case, which has fuelled Western criticism of President Vladimir Putin’s third term. Courts had repeatedly refused to free them on bail in previous hearings.
They are charged with hooliganism over the protest, in which some tried to scale an oil platform in the Pechora Sea which is Russia’s first offshore rig in the Arctic.
On Monday, courts in St. Petersburg ordered three Russians released on bail but ruled that Colin Russell, an Australian, should be held until February 24.
Investigators have sought three-month extensions of detention for the activists from 18 countries, but the Kremlin may believe releasing some on bail could ease criticism of Russia, which hosts the Winter Olympics in February.
Western leaders and celebrities have expressed concern over the case.
David Haussmann of New Zealand, Ana Paula Alminhana Maciel of Brazil, Tomasz Dziemianczuk of Poland, Paul Ruzycki of Canada, Cristian D‘Alessandro of Italy, Francesco Pisanu of France, Sini Saarela of Finland and Miguel Hernan Perez Orzi and Camila Speziale of Argentina are to be freed once bail is paid.
Haussmann, 49, an electric engineer on the Arctic Sunrise, the Greenpeace icebreaker that was used in the protest at the Prirazlomnaya oil platform, described the decision as the victory of common sense.
His lawyer Alexander Mukhortov said the foreigners can leave Russia but are obliged by law to be available to investigators. Speaking from the defendant’s cage in court, Haussmann told reporters he would fly home to New Zealand to be with his 3-year-old son and his pregnant partner.
“I will hug my partner Sarah and my boy Theo,” he said, smiling. “I’ll be much happier when I‘m home.”
Greenpeace representative Mads Christensen said it was not certain they would be going home soon.
“They could be restricted to Russian territory. Nobody at Greenpeace is celebrating yet.”
Although the bail rulings did not specify travel restrictions, a lawyer for Pisanu said the activists will need investigators’ permission to change places of residence.
“He (Pisanu) must be here while the investigation is underway,” lawyer Tatiana Zaisteva told Reuters. “He does not have the right to leave without the permission of investigators.”
The investigation is ongoing and no trial date has been set. Custody hearings for the other detainees are continuing.
Greenpeace says the protest over the platform operated by state-controlled energy giant Gazprom was peaceful and the charges are unfounded.
The environmental group says drilling for oil in the Arctic threatens the region’s pristine environment.
Putin has said that development and shipping there are important to Russia’s economy and security.
The 30 activists were initially charged with piracy, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Putin has said they were clearly not pirates but that they violated the law.
($1 = 32.6232 Russian roubles)
Additional reporting by Anastasia Gorelova and Valera Stepchenko; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel, Editing by Steve Gutterman and Angus MacSwan