Working through translators, because most of the crew spoke little or no Russian, the investigators produced sheet after sheet of documents for the detainees to sign, chronicling the slow progression of the criminal case but not delving into the facts of the allegations themselves.
“They haven’t been asking me, ‘What did you do? Why did you do it?’ ” said Sini Saarela of Finland, an experienced rock climber who briefly scaled Russia’s first offshore oil platform in the Pechora Sea the day before armed border troops seized the crew and their ship, the Arctic Sunrise. “At some point in the process, we realized this is not actually about what happened.”
Greenpeace undertook the high-seas protest to draw attention to what it considers the dangers of oil exploration in the fragile Arctic environment. But the arrest and prolonged detention of the ship’s crew members has also cast light on the capriciousness of Russia’s legal system.
Although the last of the 30 crew members was granted bail last week, the criminal cases against them are far from over. The ship is still impounded in a port in the far northern city of Murmansk, in defiance of a ruling by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which Russia said it would not recognize. The crew members themselves remain in a sort of legal limbo. The four Russians onboard were allowed to return to their homes, but the 26 foreigners, from 17 countries, must remain in St. Petersburg as the investigation continues.
In a series of interviews after being released on bail, Ms. Saarela and other crew members described a prosecution bound by the letter of the law but almost entirely opaque, even to their Russian lawyers. The investigators, they said, paid slavish and at times comic attention to bureaucratic protocol, if not always to logic.
They were initially told they would be detained for a matter of hours, and packed bags of clothing with that in mind. Instead, they were charged with piracy, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years — even though President Vladimir V. Putin himself had dismissed the notion that they were pirates.
“ ‘O.K.,’ we thought, ‘that’s a done deal. They’re going to be reasonable about it,’ ” the captain of the ship, Peter Willcox, an American, said in a separate telephone interview. “It was a complete shock to us when we learned we were going down for piracy, which is a 10- to 15-year charge.”
Just as unexpectedly, the investigative committee then reduced the charges to hooliganism, a lesser offense that nonetheless carries a maximum sentence of seven years.
After their arrest, the defendants each appeared in police lineups to be identified by the border guards who had arrested them and spent five days with them as the ship was towed to port in Murmansk. By law, the proceedings had to be translated into the defendants’ native languages, which was done with mixed results. When Faiza Oulahsen, from the Netherlands, told a judge that she was committed to her principles, the Dutch translator rendered the phrase, “I am a freedom fighter,” prompting a protest from Ms. Oulahsen’s lawyer.
Ms. Oulahsen at one point counted the number of documents she had been asked to sign. There were 42 by then, each detailing some aspect of her detention or the charges lodged in court. The investigator in her case treated her well, she said, becoming agitated only if she hesitated to sign the latest sheet of paper. She realized the primacy in Russia of the official document. “He needs those papers,” she said.
Russian officials, including Mr. Putin, have defended Russia’s sovereignty in the Arctic but made contradictory statements about the specific cases, at points accusing the activists of complicity with foreign intelligence services or oil competitors. Mr. Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei B. Ivanov, said the crew members would be allowed to leave as soon as “the issue of how they can leave Russian territory is settled.” At the same time, he said that Greenpeace’s means were incorrect even if its goals were noble.
“This should be settled legally,” Mr. Ivanov said on Nov. 23, according to the Interfax news agency. “We have never treated and will not treat this politically.”
In the interviews, the crew members described their detention as grim and uncertain, but not abusive. As foreigners, they received far more attention from diplomats and Russia’s human rights commission than the Russian prisoners with whom they shared cells. Alexandra Harris, of Britain, said one of her cellmates was a 74-year-old woman who had spent a year in pretrial detention for stabbing a neighbor in what she claimed was self-defense. The woman, Ms. Harris said, made her bed each morning.
Although they were kept in separate cells, the activists communicated with one another, against prison rules, during the hour each day they were allowed in small, covered pens. Using discarded matches on the ground, they scratched “Save the Arctic” on the plaster walls.
Despite the ordeal of detention, they said their personal sacrifice had succeeded in a way that earlier protests against Arctic drilling had not. “We’ve achieved in two months what it took years for the Arctic campaign to do,” Ms. Harris said, referring to Greenpeace’s efforts. “And that made our being in prison worth it.”
The crew members have been reunited in a hotel in the center of St. Petersburg, which Greenpeace declined to identify. They are free to move about, though most have not ventured far. They are still facing more of the same meetings with investigators, who produce more documents to sign detailing an investigation that, under the conditions of bail, can continue until Feb. 24.
“It isn’t over yet,” Ms. Oulahsen said. “Yes, it feels good to be free again and to walk on the street as a free person, but we still have these charges, and it’s still fluid. Anything can happen. That’s the thing with Russia.”