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Russia grants bail to first Greenpeace activist

Greenpeace International activist Ekaterina Zaspa -- one of the 'Arctic 30' --  waits inside a defendant cage in a court in Saint Petersburg
Greenpeace International activist Ekaterina Zaspa -- one of the "Arctic 30" -- waits inside a defendant cage in a court in Saint Petersburg

A Russian court on Monday extended the pre-trial detention of one of 30 Greenpeace activists arrested for a protest against Arctic oil drilling, but unexpectedly freed a Russian doctor on bail.

Yekaterina Zaspa, a doctor with Greenpeace's Arctic Sunrise icebreaker, became the first of the arrested crewmembers to be freed pending trial, after two months in detention.

She was released on bail of two million rubles ($61,400, 45,500 euros), Greenpeace said, citing the ruling of the Kalininsky court in Russia's second city, Saint Petersburg.

Earlier on Monday, another Saint Petersburg court extended the pre-trial detention of Australian activist Colin Russell until February 24, meaning he could remain in jail until Russia is done hosting the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, which end on February 23.

The rulings suggest that Russian authorities may free at least some of the ship's auxiliary staff on bail while extending the detention of key activists.

Earlier on Monday the judge at Saint Petersburg's Primorsky court, who heard Russell's case, decided to "leave the pre-trial restrictions unchanged until February 24".

A request for bail or house arrest was denied.

"I love you all. I love everybody," said Russell, 59, after the judge announced her decision. "I am not a criminal," he said in comments released by Greenpeace.

Earlier in the day Russell insisted he was innocent.

Greenpeace activist Colin Russell stands in a defendant cage at a courthouse in Saint Petersburg, on November 18, 2013
Greenpeace activist Colin Russell stands in a defendant cage at a courthouse in Saint Petersburg, on November 18, 2013

"I have spent two months in detention, having done nothing wrong," Russell, looking visibly upset, said from a metal cage in the courtroom.

"I have not committed a crime so I have nothing to run from."

Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo said: "This case is now a circus.

"We will continue to pursue every legal avenue we can, and leave no stone unturned, until each and every one of them is home with their families," he said in a statement.

'Let me go home'

The two courts were scheduled to rule on the detention of several more activists and freelance journalists, but some of the hearings were postponed until later this week.

The Kalininsky court was also scheduled to decide on the detention of Russian photographer Denis Sinyakov. The prosecution demanded that his extension be extended by three months, Greenpeace said on Twitter.

One of the activists, Ana Paula Maciels from Brazil, held several placards inside her metal cage on Monday.

"I love Russia but let me go home," read one poster. "Save the Arctic," read another.

Her lawyer urged the judge to think about Russia's international reputation.

A handout photo taken by Greenpeace on September 18, 2013, shows Greenpeace activists boarding Gazprom’'s ‘Prirazlomnaya’ Arctic oil platform
A handout photo taken by Greenpeace on September 18, 2013, shows Greenpeace activists boarding Gazprom’'s ‘Prirazlomnaya’ Arctic oil platform

"I am calling on the court not to violate the legal norms otherwise no one would come for the Olympics because no one would want to come to a country where law is violated," Sergei Golubok said in court.

But Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Higher School of Economics, suggested the activists could be released in the run-up to the high-profile event "to improve Russia's image."

More hearings are scheduled to run through Thursday.

The 30 activists from 18 countries were put in pre-trial jail in September after their ship was seized at gunpoint by Russian security forces following their open-sea protest against Arctic oil drilling.

The activists were first charged with piracy, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years, but the charges were later changed to hooliganism, which carries a punishment of up to seven years.

They were first held in and around the city of Murmansk above the Arctic Circle but were earlier this month transferred to Saint Petersburg.

A range of international stars including Madonna and politicians such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel have called for their release.

Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney published a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin saying he hoped the activists could be home for Christmas.

The global outcry over the heavy-handed treatment of the Greenpeace campaigners has been compared to the international shock following the jailing for two years of two members of the punk band Pussy Riot after they performed an anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral last year.

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