American Greenpeace Captain Fears Russian Prison

Capt. Peter Willcox says Russian boarding commandos got drunk on ship's liquor.

MOSCOW Nov. 26, 2013— -- Capt. Peter Willcox is sitting in a St. Petersburg hotel room, wondering how he ever got there.

Not because of the dramatic takeover of his Greenpeace ship by Russian commandos in September; that was almost expected.

But the charge of piracy was not expected. Two months in a grim Russian jail north of the Arctic Circle was also not expected. The possibility of 15 years in prison certainly was not.

And as his pre-trial detention dragged on, his sudden release on bail last week was just another twist in a frightening saga that is still unfolding.

"This was not what we were expecting," the American environmental activist told ABC News in a phone interview.

After 40 years with Greenpeace, Willcox, 60, is no stranger to confrontation. He had been boarded and detained before and, in that sense, what happened on Sept. 19 was almost routine.

That evening, as Willcox was exercising on an elliptical machine in the ship's gym, a Russian helicopter swooped overhead. The commandos, dressed in black with no insignia, rappelled onto the Arctic Sunrise's deck and barked orders at the crew.

"Just commands going 'move' or 'stop,'" he recalled. "When a guy's carrying a machine gun you get the idea."

The commandos rounded up the crew, searched them, and locked them in a room. Then they confiscated everyone's alcohol and, according to other crewmembers, proceeded to get very, very drunk.

The next day, as the Arctic Sunrise was being towed to the Russian port city of Murmansk, Willcox was locked in his cabin but thought he had little to fear. He had protested in Russia twice before.

"We thought we knew Russia," he said. "I'm not very worried. This has happened before. We've been taken over before. I've gotten boarded by the French off Polynesia. It's part of the game. We thought we'll be under arrest after Murmansk and well be out of there."

Their mission, to protest against drilling in the Arctic at a Russian oil platform, had already been a success. Dramatic video of the Greenpeace activists attempting to scale the platform, then being intercepted by armed Russian Coast Guard troops had already drawn worldwide attention. The four days it would take to arrive in port and probably a night in jail would only increase the attention, he thought.

"We're not very disappointed, we're not very worried at that point," he said.

But after arriving in Murmansk, it was soon evident this was no routine detention.

Prosecutors announced charges of piracy, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

"That was devastating, that's a life changer," Willcox said.

Even though Russian President Vladimir Putin eventually downgraded the piracy charge, their detention dragged on. And on. At one point Willcox he was sharing a cell with a Russian man awaiting trial for a year and a half on drug charges, which added to the anxiety.

Willcox was confined to his prison cell 23 hours a day. He wouldn't see the sun for six weeks. During that one hour out he was put in what he described as an "exercise cage" that was only slightly larger than his cell. But it did provide an opportunity to yell at his shipmates to find out what they knew.

"We knew after a couple weeks that everyone was in the same prison, and that was a great thing," he said.

The detention took a toll. Willcox lost 20 pounds in his first three weeks in jail.

"Ninety percent of that weight came off from anxiety and fear. I don't mind telling you I was scared," he said.

Willcox said he tried to make nice with the guards, who he said recognized he posed no threat and looked after him well. But he was only allowed to meet with his lawyer after a month and allowed to call home once a month.

"We were really isolated, we really didn't know what was going on. We hardly saw each other enough to speculate," he said.

When he was being transported, he was locked in a wagon divided into pitch-dark partitions half the size of a phone booth. Some crewmembers reported being locked in for up to three hours.

Those months in jail, with no end visible and the threat of many more years in prison looming, provided much time for self-reflection.

Willcox is passionate about the environment and deeply fearful of the threat of climate change. He says even if he had known it would result in a two month jail sentence, he would still would have gotten on that boat.

But was it worth up to a decade and a half in prison? No way.

"This is a hugely important campaign. Climate change is huge. I am sincerely deeply worried about the future of my kids. But by the same token I'm not going to jail for 10 or 15 years over a demonstration," he said.

Earlier this month, Russian authorities announced the Greenpeace activists would be transferred to St Petersburg's notorious Kresty Prison, which holds the dubious distinction of being Europe's oldest.

The journey down from Murmansk, he said, was even more difficult than jail.

The activists were transported on an old prisoner train car where Willcox slept on a hard metal slab. His lawyer advised him to bring an empty bottle because they weren't allowed to go to the bathroom. The journey lasted days.

The one thing that kept him calm was the sound of the women's cell, which was right next to his.

"I'm just trying to not freak out, but the sound from the women's cell was this constant laughter, chatter, giggling, and carrying on and it's just like the greatest noise you can hear in your life," he recalled.

Finally, last week Willcox stood in the caged defendant's dock in a St. Petersburg courtroom for a five hour hearing that would determine his immediate fate. Most of the other crewmembers had been released on bail by that point and Willcox was hopeful.

But as the judge began speaking, Willcox's interpreter recited the reasons he should be denied bail. His heart sank, convinced that he, the captain, was being made the example. Then, the judge listed the reasons why he should be allowed bail and motioned that it was granted.

"It was just a perfect example of the whole two months," he said. "You're up, you're down. You're up, you're down and you don't know what's going on."

Willcox is not yet a free man.

Though prosecutors have backed off the piracy charges, he still faces charges of hooliganism which carry a maximum jail term of seven years.

"You keep telling yourself, I know it's not going to go like that, I know I'm going to be out one month, two months, six months. I know this can't go on, but it's going on. It's still going on," he said.

He's still hoping to be released soon, hoping perhaps the spotlight of the Winter Olympics, which Russia will host in Sochi in February, will encourage authorities to release him and his fellow activists.

His wife is applying for a visa to visit him, but he's not losing any time in case the worst comes. After being denied contact for most of the past two months, they speak on the phone twice a day.

Willcox hopes he'll be released soon. He's already planning his next mission.

"I'm ready to get back to work," he said.

Another Greenpeace boat, the Rainbow Warrior, is scheduled to sail up the East Coast of the United States early next year. Willcox hopes to be on board.

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events