By Jill Dougherty
When Greenpeace activists tried to scale an oil platform in the Barents Sea owned by the Russian energy giant Gazprom on September 19, the group called it a peaceful protest against the "slow but unrelenting destruction of the Arctic."
Russian prosecutors, however, did not agree and Wednesday they began charging the protesters with piracy, which could mean up to 15 years in prison.
The State Department confirms that one of the activists charged is an American, Dmitry Litvinov. Greenpeace says he has dual U.S. and Swedish citizenship.
One other American, according to the State Department, has not been charged. Greenpeace said his name is Peter Willcox, the captain of the Greenpeace boat.
The organization says he also was the captain of the Rainbow Warrior when it was bombed by the French Government in Auckland, New Zealand in 1985.
The State Department says the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg has met with both of the detained U.S. citizens and it understands they have access to legal counsel.
Twenty eight activists from 18 countries, along with an independent journalist and a videographer, were aboard the Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise.
They were arrested after two of the protesters tried to climb the side of the oil platform. Russian authorities accuse them of trying to commandeer the platform. Greenpeace says they were trying to hang a protest banner from the side of the rig.
Armed Russian Coast Guard officers descended onto the deck of the boat from helicopters and detained the protesters at gunpoint.
Their boat was towed to the northern Russian port of Murmansk September 24 and the protesters are being held in three different facilities.
The charge of piracy is "over the top," Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA, tells CNN.
"I think they (Russian prosecutors) will take it all the way to trial. I think Gazprom is using its political muscle to have the courts really crack down on these peaceful protesters. It's a serious and overblown charge. They need to have the piracy charge because it's the only way they can save face from illegally arresting these activists and journalists."
Russian authorities and Gazprom, however, say the activists endangered the lives of the company's employees and their action could have led to an environmental disaster.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated he does not consider the protesters pirates but Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, quoted in the Russian media, said Wednesday: "Environmental concerns cannot be used as a cloak for illegal acts no matter what lofty considerations such acts are based on. They cannot manifest themselves in illegal methods or methods that are eventually unsafe for people and technological facilities."
Greenpeace says it expects charges to be brought against other Greenpeace campaigners. Radford said that, as of Wednesday, nine men and five women protesters had been charged.