Paul Ruzycki, Arctic 30 member, calls piracy charge an insult

In his first feature interview since returning to Canada, Ruzycki recalls his dramatic ordeal for CBC's The Current and reflects on the impact the Arctic 30 have had on environmental awareness.

Greenpeace activist talks about ordeal after being released from Russian prison

Greenpeace activist Paul Ruzycki looks out from a defendants' box at a district court building in Murmansk on Sept. 26. Russian authorities seized the Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise, after two activists tried to scale the rig to protest against Russian plans to drill for oil in the Arctic. (Sergei Eshchenko/Reuters)

One of the Canadians arrested after a Greenpeace protest at a Russian oil rig says it was not the prison time that bothered him the most. It was being charged with piracy.

"Being charged as a pirate was the biggest insult to me. I've been sailing for 28 years, and I've been through pirate areas with ships, so I know what pirates do," Paul Ruzycki told CBC Radio's The Current.

"It was an overblown charge, and there's no way Greenpeace would ever be convicted of being pirates."

It was an overblown charge, and there's no way Greenpeace would ever be convicted of being pirates.- Paul Ruzycki, activist

Despite a permanent criminal record in Russia, Ruzycki said he doesn't regret the campaign, and that the Arctic 30's ordeal has proven beneficial.

"Now that I'm out and I'm home and I can see what's happened in the past three months, how the press has gotten so big globally over this issue, I think that everyone on every continent is now aware of this Arctic oil drilling," he said. 

The 48-year-old Ruzycki and fellow Canadian Alexandre Paul, 36, were among 30 Greenpeace activists arrested and detained by Russian authorities in September.

The Arctic 30, as they have come to be known, sailed to Russia aboard the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise to campaign against oil and gas drilling in the region.

After Russian commandos rapelled from a helicopter and arrested everyone aboard the vessel, the activists spent just over two months in Russian prisons.

In late December, all 30 crew members were granted amnesty by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ruzycki and Paul were allowed to return home.

In his first feature interview since arriving back in his hometown of Port Colborne, Ont., Ruzycki — who was second in command aboard the ship — recalled the dramatic arrests and his time in two different Russian prisons on The Current.

"I was on watch at the time, and I saw a helicopter approaching very fast. The ship was doing three or four knots, so very slow," he said.

"The helicopter was too big to actually land on the ship but it did send some lines down and about 10 special forces abseiled down the lines with automatic weapons in hand. The commandos forced everyone down onto their knees. They had no insignia, just balaclavas, climbing gear and automatic weapons."

According to Ruzycki, the commandos knew little English, only a few people on board spoke Russian, and several chaotic minutes passed until they had seized full control the ship.

In his nearly 30 years sailing around the world, Ruzycki has been aboard ships when commandos have boarded multiple times, but said that this time the threat and use force was not necessary.

"They knew we were Greenpeace, that we are non-violent and have no weapons. So they just used intimidation techniques to frighten us and get us to do what they were telling us to do," he said.

The Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise was then towed to the port city of Murmansk with all of the activists still on board. Ruzycki and Paul were informed that they were being charged with piracy – a crime that can carry a 15-year prison sentence in Russia – and interrogated for more than four hours without a lawyer present.

In the following days, the detainees were transferred to what Paul described as a "quite cold and stinky" prison to await trial. They were not allowed to contact their families for nearly six weeks and spent 23 hours a day in their cells, separated from colleagues.