Greenpeace activist from Queen's Park speaks about his Russian prison ordeal
PUBLISHED: 12:00 15 March 2014
The prospect of being locked up in one of Russia's most notorious prison for two excruciating months did not cross the mind of Brent Greenpeace (GP) activist when he embarked on his latest campaign.
A Greenpeace activist locked up in Russia for two months for protesting against oil drilling in the Arctic has spoken to the Times about his ordeal.
Father of two Frank Hewetson, 48, from Queen’s Park, was on board Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise with 30 crew members in Murmansk when they were arrested and charged with piracy.
They all faced years in jail but following their arrest in September new amnesty laws were passed, allowing investigators to grant them bail and visas to return home. The piracy charges were changed to a lesser count of hooliganism.
Recalling the beginning of his ordeal on September 18 Mr Hewetson describes dodging bullets from Russian forces as he and other activists attempted to board the rig.
He said: “They fired into the water, then over our heads, which makes you think, ‘What are you doing?’
“We are the ones getting accused of craziness by the oil rig industry, yet these guys are the ones shooting at us.”
Mr Hewetson, a Greenpeace activist for more than 25 years, has been arrested “countless times”, and was imprisoned for two months for attempting a similar feat in Greenland to stop a Scottish oil rig from drilling in the country.
“I have had many brushes with the law, all down to Greenpeace, but I didn’t expect two months in prison – none of us did,” he admits.
“When we faced charges of piracy, that was a serious body blow and a lot of us verged on panic.”
He described being locked up in one of Russia’s most notorious detention centres as a “difficult experience”.
He was cooped up in a cramped cell, shared by two other Russian inmates, for 23 hours a day, with one hour of isolated exercise in another equally small space.
He said: “The exercise yard was like a pig pen. In fact, I’ve actually seen better pens for pigs in Devon than what I had in there.”
He drew strength from unlikely sources to help him cope with the appalling conditions – meticulously handcrafting a deck of playing cards and whistling the theme tune from Second World War Hollywood film The Great Escape.
“One of the crew members was whistling the tune. It was such a wonderful and emotional experience for me,” he said.
“I laughed and cried pretty much at the same time, mainly because of how much it moved me, and also how difficult the situation was.
“Being in a prison which was brutal and really badly- kept, I realised I was in my own great escape situation.”
However, while fellow British activists returned home on their release, Mr Hewetson opted for a holiday in a sunny location with the family he had not seen for four months.
On finally reaching the UK he said: “It made me feel very, very happy to be home.
“I went to the shop to buy the paper and some biscuits.
“I felt so good. It was very nice walking down my road and walking up to my front door. It was lovely to be welcomed by Pluto, our dog.”
Mr Hewetson, who has lived in Brent since 1996, has been inundated with letters from well-wishers, including a note from Queen’s Park Residents’ Association (QPRA) offering help.
He said: “[Russian president Vladimir] Putin should be trembling. He has ticked off QPRA. He has no idea what he is in for.
“Something like that reminds you it is a community we live in and people do know their neighbours and it’s a very warming and welcoming feeling.
“The Arctic campaign continues, but not for a while because my wife would kill me,” he adds.
“I do not have any regrets but I do have guilt.
“I thought about my home and family a lot; every hour of every day. I thought how it was affecting them.
“Both my daughter and my son started a new school a day after I left. I felt particularly worried about how they were coping with the situation and I felt guilty for what I was putting them through.”
Book publishers have been urging him to write about his experience, but he says it is all still “too raw”.
But he says has been asked by schools and university to share his experiences.
“My next speech will take place very close to home – at my son’s school,” he said.