Skip to main content

Freed Greenpeace ship captain back home from Russia

By Ray Sanchez, CNN
updated 11:13 PM EST, Sat December 28, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Greenpeace vessel captain among 30 activists released by Russian authorities
  • The protesters faced 10 to 15 years on piracy charges
  • Their three-month saga ended with a sweeping amnesty program by Russia's president

(CNN) -- The captain of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise returned home to Maine on Saturday after an absence of more than three months that included time in one of Europe's oldest prisons.

"I'm going to shovel out a path to the woodpile and get a fire going," Peter Willcox said in a phone interview shorty after arriving at his house on Islesboro Island. "That's the first thing on my list."

Willcox, 60, who joined the environmental activist group in 1981, was among 28 protesters and two journalists aboard the Greenpeace vessel who were arrested by Russian authorities and thrown in jail in September.

The 70-foot Greenpeace vessel was on a mission to protest a rig owned by Russian company Gazprom when a helicopter swooped down and paratroopers stormed the ship and arrested everyone on board. They were held in a prison in Murmansk for six weeks and then the remainder of the time in St. Petersburg, including a stint at Kresty prison, which dates back to the late 1800s.

The charges: piracy, with a potential sentence of 10 to 15 years in prison. While the charges were later reduced to "hooliganism," they were still looking at a penalty of up to seven years in jail.

Greenpeace Arctic 30 released
Greenpeace activist released

"If it wasn't the conditions that were so bad for the first six weeks in jail, it was the uncertainty of being charged with piracy," Willcox said. "That was the thing that caused the anxiety, the stress and the nervousness."

Initally, the jailed activists, who became known as the Arctic 30, spent 23 of 24 hours every day in small, cold cells. They were allowed one hour a day of solitary exercise in a "concrete box" slightly larger than their cells.

"You could go for a months without seeing the sunshine and we did," said Willcox, who was the captain of the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior when it was bombed by French agents in Auckland, New Zealand in 1985, killing one crew member.

At Kresty, Willcox said he shared a cell with a 40-something Russian charged with dealing drugs. He was isolated from his crew. The two men played chess. His cellmate also would cook and share meals with him.

"He cooked me some wonderful dinners," Willcox said. "He had a real grocery store in our cell. His family would bring him food. Greenpeace would bring me food. He has an immersion heater which he put in a coffee bowl of water with vegetables and make a good soup."

Willcox also spent time reading Harry Potter books delivered by Greenpeace.

The ordeal ended last week, with a sweeping amnesty program by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The amnesty law freed business executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who were jailed for a performance critical of Putin.

"The reason we're out ... is that there was such an outpouring of support for us all over over the world, from people like Paul McCartney and Nobel laureates and senators," Willcox said. "We'd still be in jail if we hadn't had that kind of support."

Another big reason: In less than two months the world attention will be on Russia's Sochi Olympics.

"I'm quite convinced the government didn't want is in jail during the Olympics," Willcox said. "That would have been a huge mistake. There would have demonstrations at the Olympics which they didn't want. It just wasn't worth the trouble to keep us."

Willcox said he remains committed to Greenpeace and its environmental cause. He said he does so mostly for his two daughters, ages 18 and 22. In February he will embark on another Arctic Sunrise mission in the United States.

"If somebody says that people in Russia and people around the world are much more aware of the dangers of drilling for oil anywhere, and especially in the Arctic, I'd say, 'OK, I can do two months for that,'" Willcox said. "What I couldn't do for that is 10 to 15 years... To me the alternative of turning the world over to the oil companies is not a viable option."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:19 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
China and likely other countries have the capacity to shut down the U.S. power grid, says the NSA.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
If it wasn't for a comic's skit, Bill Cosby would still be America's favorite father, says expert.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Obama orders the most sweeping overhaul of U.S. immigration in decades, prioritizing the deportation of "felons, not families."
updated 4:06 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Fighters loyal to ISIS are now in control of Derna, a city on Libya's Mediterranean coast.
updated 2:45 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
The founder of a U.S. nonprofit that works with returning soldiers is named CNN's Hero of the Year.
updated 8:24 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
It's a very big challenge but NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan thinks it can be done.
updated 7:39 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
CNN's Atika Shubert explains how the most recent ISIS video differs from the other previous hostage execution videos.
updated 12:38 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
A Syrian cleric condemns ISIS and its execution of U.S. hostage Peter Kassig.
updated 12:20 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Volunteer fighters in eastern Ukraine dig down just 800 meters from the front line.
updated 12:29 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
TV anchor wears the same suit for a year. Female colleague wears new outfit daily. Who gets criticized?
updated 7:04 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT