MOSCOW – Russia’s main investigative agency said Wednesday that it has dropped piracy charges against jailed Greenpeace activists and charged them instead with hooliganism, which means the detainees could still spend years in prison.

The Investigative Committee’s statement follows a comment by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said last month that he doesn’t think that the Greenpeace activists were pirates.

Piracy is punishable by a prison term of up to 15 years, while the specific hooliganism charge being applied now carries up to seven years in prison.

The Investigative Committee also warned that it could file additional charges against the Greenpeace activists, including violence against authorities. That charge is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

A group of 28 Greenpeace activists, a Russian photographer and a British videographer have been held since their ship, the “Arctic Sunrise” was seized by the Russian coast guard after protesting outside a Gazprom-owned oil rig Sept. 18. The ship’s captain, Peter Willcox, is married to Maggy Willcox, publisher of the Islesboro Island News in Maine.

The Investigative Committee said that the detainees’ refusal to testify has impeded the investigation. It dismissed the Greenpeace claim that the protest was peaceful, saying it was a crime under an international law to try to seize an oil rig.

Vladimir Chuprov of Greenpeace Russia rejected the new charges, saying the activists “are no more hooligans than they were pirates” and should be freed immediately.

“This is still a wildly disproportionate charge that carries up to seven years in jail,” he said in a statement. “We will contest the trumped up charge of hooliganism as strongly as we contested the piracy allegations. They are both fantasy charges that bear no relation to reality.”

Chuprov also dismissed the committee’s warning that it may charge some of the activists with use of force against officials, pointing at Greenpeace’s 42-year history of peaceful protest.

“They arrived at that oil rig in a ship painted with a dove and a rainbow,” he said.

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