Russia is within its legal rights to jail two Canadian Greenpeace activists, says UBC prof.
With renewed calls for Canada to help two Greenpeace activists imprisoned in Russia, Ian Townsend-Gault breaks down the legal situation.
How does the law interpret a case like this?
The fact that the incident happened in Russian waters really doesn’t change anything. If someone climbed onto a Canadian offshore oilrig without permission, we’d throw the book at them. The Russians are within their legal rights to charge the activists, who appear to be in the wrong, no matter how highly principled they are. Under Russian law, they trespassed the safety zone limits of an offshore installation. The Russians have the totality of rights within that violated zone to invoke their jurisdiction.
When would the Canadian government have the legal right to intervene, if at all?
Canada can really only intervene when there’s proof that there’s been a clear violation of an international legal standard. This would only take place if the men were tried, convicted and the sentence was outrageous. The knee-jerk reaction that we must do something is countered by the fact that there has been a real breach of Russia’s right to protect its installations. When the families call for the government to intervene, the reality is that their family members are jumping the gun, maybe because it’s Russia.
How legitimate are the charges the two men face and the maximum sentence of seven years in jail?
Seven years is wholly excessive. Armed robbers get less than that. Many things about the Russian legal system are repugnant, and full of heavy-handed tactics. But the Russians do have a right to run their country the way they want. As for the charges of hooliganism, many legal systems around the world have similar charges in place, which cover a vague breach of the peace. They are intentionally ambiguous.
Ian Townsend-Gault is an associate professor of law and director of UBC’s Southeast Asian Legal Studies.