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Govt defends efforts to free activist

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Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has defended the government’s efforts on behalf of Greenpeace activist Colin Russell, who says Canberra should have done more to have him freed from a Russian jail.

Mr Russell was one of 30 activists arrested and detained in September for protesting against a Russian oil rig operated by Moscow-based energy company Gazprom in the Pechora Sea.

Known as the Arctic 30, the group had been accused of hooliganism, but the charges were dropped last week and all were freed after the Russian parliament passed an amnesty law.

Arriving back home to Hobart last night, Mr Russell complained that Australian authorities could have done more in their representations with their Russian counterparts.

The federal government’s efforts were “a little bit too little too late”, he told reporters at Hobart International Airport.

“They were going to let me go through the Russian legal process,” the 59-year-old activist said.

“But it doesn’t exist – if you’re accused in Russia, you’re guilty.

“I thought … maybe they should have gone into bat a little bit more for me.”

But Ms Bishop said the activist had received a high level of consular and ministerial assistance, saying she had personally written to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

She said the representation afforded Mr Russell was higher “than is often provided”. However, she said, to publicise her own involvement would have been counter-productive.

“If you put a lot of publicity around ministerial representation it can raise the false hopes of others in jail overseas, who can be led to believe that just a phone call from the minister can make all the difference, and that is not the case,” Ms Bishop told ABC Radio this morning.

“And by making it public it can negate the representation.”

Russell was flanked by his wife Christine and daughter Madeleine at Hobart International Airport, where he embraced friends and wished media a happy new year.

The 59-year-old ship’s radio operator said his priorities were reuniting with dog George and slotting into normal life on his property south of Hobart.

“No regrets,” he said. “That’s my job.

“I’m trying to give a future to our kids, our grandkids. We all need to stand together for that. If I can lead the way, great.”

Mr Russell said he had learned of tuberculosis and AIDS outbreaks in the St Petersburg jail where he was held for 71 days, and would need blood tests for the next two years..

“The jail actually reminded me of Port Arthur,” he said.

“It’s very rundown; everything was not really clean, dirty.

“The first floor of the men’s jail had tuberculosis in it, which I didn’t find out until after I’d left, and AIDS.

“It’s a tough place.”

Mr Russell said he’d lost several kilograms in jail, but had otherwise held up well.

“Mentally I was fine. I like to read and I was occupied in my mind.”

He said he was generally treated well but described the Russian legal system as “a little bit in the old days”.

Mr Russell plans to return to his job with Greenpeace after several months’ leave, and says he will work on their ships again, possibly in a public relations role.

“Maybe I won’t be doing some naughty things in Russian waters for a while,” he said.

But he added Greenpeace’s protests would continue.

“We’ll still campaign the same as ever. That’s what we do.

“I have no regrets about the time in jail if it’s done the job.”

Known as the Arctic 30, the group were accused of hooliganism before charges were dropped last month under an amnesty law.

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