Video report by Beau Berman, Fox CT
Text by Christine Dempsey, The Hartford Courant
More than a month after Norwalk native Peter Willcox was arrested by Russian authorities on a piracy charge during a Greenpeace protest in the Arctic, his wife, Maggie Willcox, talked to him on Monday for the first time since the ordeal began.
“He sounded strong and positive,” she said of her husband, the 60-year-old captain of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, which was towed to shore by the Russians. Dubbed the Arctic 30, 28 members of Greenpeace, plus a photographer and a videographer, have been in custody since two activists tried to hang a banner on an oil rig to protest drilling on Sept. 18.
“The part that makes me feel good is that he is in reasonably good health,” Maggie Willcox said of her husband in a telephone interview from her in-laws’ home in South Norwalk. He had told her he is OK and that the Russians are monitoring his high blood pressure, she said.
He is trying to stay in shape by doing pushups and yoga in his jail cell, she said. He’s being fed, although the vegetarian “has to try to sift the meat out of everything.”
“It was wonderful for us to talk to him,” she said.
Greenpeace said Monday that the Dutch government has asked for an international tribunal to order the immediate release of the ship and all who were aboard. The application to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea is rare, the organization said. The vessel sails under the Dutch flag.
Greenpeace media director Molly Dorozenski — who also is from Connecticut — said the organization feels the piracy charge is “disproportional to what was done.”
If protesters hung a banner at corporate headquarters of a company in America, she said, they might expect to be charged with trespassing, a much less serious crime.
According to the International Marine Bureau, piracy is “an act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act.”
The activists were not armed, Dorozenski said.
As Maggie Willcox put it: “The whole charge of piracy is ludicrous.”
Her mother-in-law, Joan Willcox, agrees.
“We think it was a big mistake on the part of Russia to call it piracy when it’s nothing of the sort,” she said Monday.
According to Greenpeace, on Sept. 18, four inflatable boats left the Arctic Sunrise and headed toward a Russian oil platform of the state-owned Gazprom to peacefully protest what the organization is calling the “Arctic oil rush.”
A Russian Coast Guard ship responded by launching inflatables of its own, manned with masked agents. They rammed and slashed the Greenpeace inflatables, and threatened the protesters at gun and knifepoint, Greenpeace said. The organization has dramatic photos of gun and knifepoint confrontations between masked Russians and protesters with their arms up in the air.
The two activists had climbed onto the rig, but retreated when they were blasted by water cannons. Several warning shots were fired as well, Greenpeace said. Greenpeace has videos of the protesters trying to climb the side of the rig.
Russian agents eventually boarded the Arctic Sunrise, even though Greenpeace says it was outside Russian territorial waters. Days later, the ship arrived at Murmansk, where the protesters appear edin court.
On Sept. 25, President Vladimir Putin said the activists who boarded the rig are “obviously not pirates,” Greenpeace said.
Natasha Willcox, 18, one of Peter Willcox’s two daughters, said she felt “overwhelmed” when she heard that her father’s ship was in trouble.
She wasn’t deeply worried until she tried reaching him on the ship’s satellite phone and it didn’t ring, she said. She had been able to reach him that way in the past, she said.
The past month has been difficult, she said. A marine biology major at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, she gets updates from her stepmother, Maggie, and from Greenpeace.
“It’s been tough,” she said. “It’s been pretty distracting.”
Willcox said her history class might write letters about the arrests to President Barack Obama and the Russian consulate.
If she could send a message to Russians right now, she said, it would say three things:
First, she said, “They should open up a dictionary and read the definition of piracy.”
They also should give her father the health attention he needs, she said, and “let him come home as soon as possible.”
A candlelight vigil for the captain and his crew is planned for 5:30 p.m. Saturday at 36 Dock Road in Norwalk, said Peter Willcox’s sister-in-law, Barbara Smyth.