Sini Saarela
Greenpeace activist Sini Saarela, soon to be free.
Dmitri Sharomov / Greenpeace

They’re not pirates. They’re not hooligans. The Arctic 30, an international group of Greenpeace activists and journalists arrested in September at an offshore oil platform in Russia’s Arctic waters, are no longer accused criminals.

Charges against all members of the group are being dropped by Russia, and the 26 non-Russians among them will be free to return to their homelands.

Russia’s parliament on Wednesday approved by a 446-0 vote an amnesty that’s expected to affect thousands of prisoners and accused criminals, also including the two jailed members of Pussy Riot. The amnesty coincides with the 20th anniversary of Russia’s constitution and with the lead-up to the Winter Olympics Games, which Russia is hosting in February. Al Jazeera explains:

The initial bill listed hooliganism and mass riot charges, but said that only convicts can seek amnesty. The parliament then passed amendments stipulating that cases on those charges be closed even before reaching trial or verdict.

The amendments effectively meant that prosecution of the entire Greenpeace crew arrested after a protest in the Barents Sea and charged with hooliganism would end and the foreigners now staying in St Petersburg could finally go home.

The members of the Arctic 30 had faced up to seven years in jail if convicted of the crime of hooliganism. They had been initially charged as pirates, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years.

“I might soon be going home to my family, but I should never have been charged and jailed in the first place,” said Peter Willcox, the American captain of Greenpeace’s vessel. “We sailed north to bear witness to a profound environmental threat but our ship was stormed by masked men wielding knives and guns. Now it’s nearly over and we may soon be truly free, but there’s no amnesty for the Arctic. We may soon be home, but the Arctic remains a fragile global treasure under assault by oil companies and the rising temperatures they’re driving. We went there to protest against this madness. We were never the criminals here.”