September 28, 2013

Mainer: 'A gulag in Russia is not what I bargained for'

The Islesboro wife of imprisoned Greenpeace captain Peter Willcox describes her ordeal.

By David Hench
Staff Writer

Maggy Willcox of Islesboro anxiously scanned the photos of her husband locked in a cage in a Russian courtroom, where the Greenpeace activist was ordered held in prison for two months while authorities decide whether to charge him with piracy.

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Maggy and Peter Willcox on the day of their wedding, Feb. 23, 2013 on Isleboro. Peter Willcox is currently jailed in Russia after a protest last week near an offshore Russian oil platform was disrupted. He is captain of the Greenpeace ship, Arctic Sunrise, and is being held for two months during a piracy investigation.

Provided photo

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A Russian Coast guard officer is seen pointing a gun at a Greenpeace International activist as five activists attempt to climb the 'Prirazlomnaya,' an oil platform operated by Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom in Russia's Pechora Sea. The activists were there to stop it from becoming the first to produce oil from the ice-filled waters of the Arctic.

Photo by Denis Sinyakov / Greenpeace

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"There's a lot of pictures of Peter behind bars," she said Friday, "one in particular of him being led down the hall, shackled, escorted by Russians on either side, and he had this wicked grin on his face."

At least that made her feel better.

"The minute I saw that grin, my whole attitude changed. I said, 'He's OK, so I'm OK,' " she said.

Maggy Willcox hasn't been able to speak with her husband since he was taken into custody by Russian authorities last week and his ship was impounded.

Peter Willcox is one of 30 Greenpeace activists who are being investigated under Russia's piracy laws after staging a protest at a drilling platform in the Arctic.

A judge announced Thursday that all of them will be detained, some of them for two months, while the protest is investigated.

Willcox, 60, is captain of the Arctic Sunrise, which sailed into waters off the northwest coast of Russia on Sept. 18. The ship launched five inflatable boats at 4:30 a.m. as the environmental activists embarked on a protest against Russian oil giant Gazprom's plan to drill in the Arctic.

The Russian coast guard stopped most of the boats, though two protesters made it to the drilling platform before being driven back by water cannons. Russian authorities boarded the Arctic Sunrise, which was then towed to Murmansk, where the protesters appeared in court.

Maggy Willcox has been kept up to date on her husband's status by Greenpeace and the U.S. State Department, she said in a telephone interview Friday afternoon.

"We have no idea where they're being held," she said.

"I have not heard from Peter since his last email (Sept. 19), early morning, 4 a.m. or so, when he cc'd me a copy of the email he sent to the office: 'We are being boarded. Everybody OK,' " she said.

Greenpeace spokeswoman Keiller MacDuff, in New York, said the group has not been allowed to talk to the activists since they arrived in Murmansk. She said the organization's lawyers have filed an appeal of the court's decision, and many of the activists' home countries are pressuring the Russian government.

Maggy Willcox publishes the Islesboro Island News, a small, weekly newspaper on the picturesque island off Belfast.

She knew in February that she was marrying a dedicated activist.

"Peter's first project was sailing his little dinghy out and holding up his sign in front of a power plant that was being constructed in his neighborhood," she said. "This is when he's 11 years old. Peter says he would have been a great disappointment to his family if he hadn't been arrested by the time he was 21."

She said she and Peter Willcox met in the 1970s aboard the Clearwater, a Maine-made sloop that musician and activist Pete Seeger used for environmental causes, such as drawing attention to pollution in the Hudson River. Peter was the Clearwater's captain, and she was the cook.

They later went their separate ways, with Maggy buying a bakery and Peter joining Greenpeace in 1981.

Peter Willcox was the captain on board the Rainbow Warrior in 1985 when French agents bombed the ship as it lay docked in New Zealand, killing a Portuguese photographer.

Over the course of 30 years, Maggy and Peter each had a family and later became single. They reconnected in Maine as he was delivering a boat, and they got married on Islesboro in February.

Peter Willcox still lives in Connecticut, to be close to his father, who's 92, and his youngest daughter, who's in college. But he lists Islesboro as home on his Facebook page.

"When I agreed to a long-distance relationship, a gulag in Russia was not what I bargained for,'" his wife said Friday.

But she knew her husband's calling.

A week before he left for the Arctic, she sat with him during a conference call as Greenpeace strategized, making sure legal teams were in place and people were designated to keep families informed.

Peter Willcox is an unassuming, almost self-deprecating man, but he is a strong and capable sea captain, his wife said.

"He's the kind of man that inspires confidence in his crew," she said. "He's very calm, incredibly capable. People feel their lives are safe in his hands."

As captain, Willcox could face more serious consequences than some of the others if he is charged under maritime law.

"With the talk about piracy thrown about, it was very disturbing because, in Russia, it carries a 10- to 15-year sentence, and that's very frightening," Maggy Willcox said.

She was comforted when Russian President Vladimir Putin said he does not believe that the protesters are pirates.

"I'm trying to be strong, but I tell you it's been hard, mostly because I haven't heard from him," she said. "Then I read he had, at gunpoint, refused to sail his occupied ship. I finally had to stop reading what was in the media because it was frightening me too badly."

Then she thinks of the wives on Islesboro at the turn of the century, waiting for their husbands' return from the sea.

"When I'm feeling wimpy, I starch my spine reminding myself what those women did," she said. "They went for months without even knowing their spouse was alive."

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Additional Photos

Peter Willcox
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Peter Willcox, the captain of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, is shown in a courtroom in Russia on Thursday. His wife lives in Islesboro.

The Associated Press / Efrem Lukatsky


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