REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- As the standoff between Russia and Greenpeace ramped up Friday over 30 jailed activists and journalists, the environmental group led a protest here at the opening of an international Arctic conference.
The protesters were arrested Sept. 18 and charged at first with piracy after a protest staged against Russian-owned oil company Gazprom and its offshore drilling efforts in the Pechora Sea in Russia's northwest Arctic.
On Friday night, about a dozen Greenpeace activists -- several dressed in polar bear costumes -- demonstrated at the opening reception of the first Arctic Circle conference, an international gathering of some 1,000 business leaders, government officials and others with interests in the Arctic. The conference is happening this weekend in Iceland’s capital.
Greenpeace hopes to raise awareness of Russia jailing the activists before an influential international audience focused on the Arctic. Some backers of the conference, including Icelandic President Ólafur Grímsson, say it is the largest Arctic conference ever. The conference was cofounded by Grímsson and Alaska Dispatch Publisher Alice Rogoff.
On Friday, appeals for bail on behalf of two of the detained Arctic protesters, British citizens Phil Ball and Kieron Bryan, were denied in Murmansk. Bail had previously also been denied for three other protesters and a Russian freelance journalist, Greenpeace reported. Peter Willcox, captain of the detained vessel Arctic Sunrise, was expected to have a bail hearing Monday.
Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo on Friday decried the detention of the protesters in Russia, calling them "prisoners of conscience."
"They are not there because of what they did but because of what they represent," Naidoo said in a statement. He was expected to arrive in Iceland in time for the official start of the conference Saturday.
Greenpeace spokesperson Keiller MacDuff said that Naidoo is en route, and that a Sunday press conference is being planned in Iceland's capital, organized by local members of Greenpeace Nordic, who could not be immediately reached for comment.
The Arctic Circle brings together an international assembly of high-profile Arctic policymakers, including several representatives from Russia. They include Artur Chilingarov, who planted a flag in the North Pole seabed in 2007 and is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to the Arctic, and Anton Vasiliev, Russia's ambassador at large for Arctic cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"We understand Greenpeace's concern for their jailed activists," said Tracey Foster, Arctic Circle's senior strategist. "The Arctic Circle's mission is to provide a democratic platform for all those interested in Arctic affairs."