Thursday, September 3, 2009

Outspoken Piracy Expert Mikhail Voitenko Flees Russia

By Anna Malpas

The St. Petersburg Times

MOSCOW — The mysterious saga surrounding the disappearance of the Arctic Sea cargo ship took a new twist Wednesday when an outspoken piracy expert who saw political overtones in the case fled Russia.

Mikhail Voitenko, the editor of the respected Sovfrakht Marine Bulletin web site, told The St. Petersburg Times by telephone from Istanbul that he had been pressured into leaving.

“Some serious guys hinted to me yesterday or the day before yesterday,” Voitenko said. “They advised me to return in three or four months.”

Asked who the people were, Voitenko said simply, “Guess.”

Asked if it was because of his role in the Arctic Sea case, Voitenko said, “Yes, it was because of the Arctic Sea.”

Russian authorities say the Maltese-flagged Arctic Sea and its 15 Russian crew members were seized by eight hijackers near Sweden on July 24 and freed by the Navy off the west African coast on Aug. 17. But authorities have failed to offer a coherent and plausible version of what happened, including why hijackers would seize a ship reportedly carrying only $1.8 million in timber and why the ship’s Arkhangelsk-based crew was barred from contacting relatives for more than a week after they arrived in Moscow.

The ship was listed as carrying the timber from Finland to Algeria, but several commentators, including Voitenko, who was the only source of information about the case in the first days of the drama, have speculated that it might have been involved in illegal arms smuggling.

Voitenko said Wednesday afternoon that he had just flown to Istanbul. “I won’t stay here long. I will go to some other place,” he said.

Voitenko’s web site posted regular updates on the Arctic Sea case, citing unidentified sources, including people in the Defense Ministry.

Last month, after the ship was found, Voitenko gave a news conference at the Argumenty i Fakty newspaper’s offices where he said the sailors “got involved in a saga with government interests.”

He was quoted in a Time magazine article published Monday with the headline, “Was Russia’s ‘Hijacked’ Ship Carrying Missiles to the Mideast?”

Before becoming editor of the web site, Voitenko spent 15 years as a sailor. He told Radio Rossiya in an interview last year that he is “fanatical about the merchant navy.”

Voitenko had contact with the crew members’ relatives in the first days of the incident, and his web site was the first to publish an open letter from the crew members’ wives, asking the Russian government to open an investigation.

Right after the appearance of the letter, President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the Defense Ministry to find the Arctic Sea and liberate it if it had been captured.

Voitenko said Wednesday that he was not communicating with the relatives. “The relatives are silent. I mustn’t let the relatives down. It will be the worse for them,” he said, without elaborating. “If they consider that I did something good, they can write me a thank you.”

He also said he would continue to work on his web site, Sovfrakht Marine Bulletin. The site crashed for several hours on Wednesday, showing an error message, before resuming normal service.

It first crashed on Friday afternoon for reasons Voitenko could not explain but worked again Monday and Tuesday. The web site includes a forum where the Arctic Sea case was discussed by experts and sailors.

Voitenko continued to work Wednesday, offering comments to Ukrainian and Russian journalists on the case of Ariana, a ship with a Ukrainian crew captured by Somali pirates.

His bulletin is published by Sovfrakht-Sovmortrans Shipping Group.

Andrei Soldatov, an analyst who tracks the secret services at the Agentura think tank, said the intimidation described by Voitenko was not typical of the secret services toward Russian citizens, although foreign journalists might be expelled under similar circumstances.

He called the pressure to leave the country “very, very strange,” saying that secret services would be more likely simply to speak to Voitenko or close his web site.

“The question is: Who talked to him? It does not look like the secret services but arms traders, illegal arms traders or someone like that,” Soldatov said.

This is not the first case of an independent-minded Internet journalist fleeing Russia under pressure.

Roza Malsagova, the editor of Ingushetiya.ru, an Ingush opposition web site, fled with her three children in August last year and applied for political asylum in France. Magomed Yevloyev, the site’s publisher, was shot dead in police custody weeks later.

The eight suspected hijackers of the Arctic Sea have been charged with piracy and kidnapping and are awaiting trial in the Lefortovo prison.

Eleven of the ship’s sailors returned home to Arkhangelsk on Sunday. They have refused to speak to reporters, saying sarcastically that they disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle where they were fed ice cream by pirates.

Voitenko has suggested that the sailors have been persuaded to keep silent.

The authorities say the other four sailors are taking the ship to Novorossiisk. It is expected to arrive in mid-September.

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