Greenpeace activists express relief

Mid Devon Star: Phil Ball, left, and Alexandra Harris, right, are among five Britons detained in Russia who have returned to the UK Phil Ball, left, and Alexandra Harris, right, are among five Britons detained in Russia who have returned to the UK

Five Britons detained in Russia as part of the so-called "Arctic 30" have spoken of their relief as they arrived back in the UK to be reunited with their families.

The five were among 30 people arrested amid claims of hooliganism following a protest about oil drilling, and held in jail for two months.

They have since been granted amnesty under a new Russian law.

Greenpeace activists Anthony Perrett, Alexandra Harris and Phil Ball, crew member Iain Rogers and freelance videographer Kieron Bryan were greeted by friends and family as they arrived at London's St Pancras station.

They had travelled from Paris on Eurostar after leaving St Petersburg earlier today, a Greenpeace spokesman said.

Speaking to a crowd of reporters, photographers and television crews gathered at the station, Ms Harris described the prison conditions as "torture" and claimed the Russian government had agreed to their release to avoid global criticism in the lead up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

"I think it was the easy way out for Russia, t o get rid of us before the Olympics began and before there's a big PR pressure from Greenpeace and the rest of the world," she said.

Ms Harris said the fact they were given an amnesty, having done nothing wrong, was "not ideal".

But the activist said she would not rule out a similar protest again, despite criticising the appalling conditions she faced in custody.

"There was no physical violence towards me but it was torture," she said.

"We spent two months in a Russian jail cell and 100 days detained for a crime we didn't commit.

"It was obscene, a complete overreaction on the part of Russia and we should never have been there."

After an emotional reunion with his parents and brother, Mr Bryan said the prison conditions had been "incredibly tough".

"The isolation and uncertainty were the constant source of anxiety," he said.

Mr Bryan, who lives in Peckham, south London, said he had "no regrets" about travelling to the Arctic but admitted he may think differently when considering future work.

"Professionally I was doing my job. I was there to report on an event that was important and deserved coverage," he said.

"I have no regrets on taking the decision to go to the Arctic with Greenpeace to report on a peaceful protest.

"What will change is the way I approach my career and family life.

"I've put my family through the most difficult four months of our lives. I am partly responsible for that. I will need to make sure I take their feelings into consideration a lot more."

Mr Bryan said it was no coincidence that the Greenpeace activists had been released the same week as female punk band Pussy Riot and dissident businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

"It's a big human rights issue and I hope Sochi coming up will allow the world's media to shine a light a little bit closer and we will keep talking about it," he said.

"I think it was a political game we got caught up in.

"I'm obviously delighted to be released. I just hope the discussion about the way people are treated, the way a peaceful protest was treated and, as a reporter, how I was treated reporting on that event, we need to keep talking about it."

Mr Ball, 42, from Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, echoed the words of female punk band Pussy Riot, who branded their recent release by Russian authorities as a "PR stunt".

"They (the Russian authorities) dug themselves out of a hole of what was a cataclysmic PR disaster," he said.

The father-of-three described the prison conditions as "shocking".

"The electric lights were on 24 hours a day, it was so cold that I was fully clothed and still shivering all through the night," he said.

"It was disgustingly dirty. There was a family of rats living in one of the cells."

A sixth Briton, activist Frank Hewetson, has also been released and is travelling to another country.

The Arctic 30 - 28 activists and two freelance journalists - were arrested after Russian authorities boarded their ship, the Arctic Sunrise, during an anti-drilling demonstration in September.

The group were detained for protesting against an Arctic offshore oil rig owned by the Russian company Gazprom.

They were initially charged with piracy, but the charge was later changed to hooliganism.

They had their passports returned to them after being freed on bail by courts in St Petersburg, but initially did not have visas to leave Russia.

Mr Perrett, who was the first to be released, spent Christmas Day in St Petersburg before being given the news that the Russian authorities had given him a visa and his passport.

Arriving at St Pancras, a tired-looking Mr Perrett told reporters: "It has been a strange few months, but it is over now and it is good to be back. We're very relieved to be home, it's good to be back and speaking English, which has been sorely missed."

Asked whether it had been worth it, the 32-year-old, of Newport, South Wales, said: "Well, look at the media that's here today. We're trying to spread the word to save the Arctic and I think we have done that job fairly well."

He added: "I'm looking forward to spending some time in the woods and getting at one with nature that we are trying to preserve."

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