When 20 Russian soldiers armed with automatic weapons dropped from a helicopter to invade a ship carrying environment protesters last September, Kieron Bryan, a video reporter on board, remembers feeling something approaching excitement.
“My first thought was: I’m a journalist witnessing a huge story – this is going to make great footage,” he recalls.
It was only when one of those soldiers held a gun inches from his face and confiscated his camera, he realised getting an exclusive might be the least of his priorities.
What happened next to this former Sheffield student – who did a work experience stint at The Star – was psychological and physical torment which might have broken lesser people.
Kieron – along with 29 others on the ship – was arrested, accused by Russian authorities of piracy, and thrown in a series of filthy, rat-infested jails over eight weeks.
He was forced to spend 23 hours a day in complete isolation with only the leeches that appeared in the puddles of his cell for company. Meals often consisted of bread and lukewarm tea. Temperatures outside plunged to -15C and weren’t always much warmer in. During eight weeks locked up, he was allowed just two phone calls to his family. They lasted 13 minutes in total.
Most terrifyingly perhaps, he was warned it may be worth getting used to such conditions. He could be held, his lawyer said, for 15 years.
“It didn’t matter that I was completely innocent,” says the 29-year-old today. “I remember my solicitor saying this wasn’t about the law. He said: ‘This goes higher than me’. It went all the way up to Vladimir Putin.”
You may remember the news from the time: Kieron, a Sheffield University graduate, was one of the group nicknamed the Arctic 30.
This collective – 28 Greenpeace activists and two freelance journalists from 16 countries – were arrested by Russian special forces on September 19 last year during a peaceful protest against offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Circle.
Their boat, the Arctic Sunrise, was stormed in international waters causing global outrage. They were taken to the port of Murmansk and thrown in a military jail.
“Even at that stage I wasn’t hugely worried,” says Kieron today, speaking exclusively to The Star about the experience. “I had faith that because we’d done nothing wrong and because there were 16 nationalities on board the ship, the Russian authorities wouldn’t want to cause a diplomatic incident – especially before the Sochi Winter Olympics.
“Plus, I was a journalist – not even one of the protesters – which should have afforded some protection. I felt we’d be given a slap on the wrist and sent on our way.”
He was in for a horrible shock.
After being held captive for two days, the group were individually taken to a court building where a judge coolly informed them, one at a time, they were being charged with piracy, a crime which came with a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Moreover, bail was to be refused while investigators were given six months to gather evidence.
“The world just tumbled in,” he recalls. “It was gut-wrenching. I was in shock. Fifteen years. By the time you’re out the whole world will have moved on. Everything I’d worked hard to achieve – every relationship I’d ever formed – would be changed forever.
“It just felt helpless because you could have no faith in the legal system. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. The world knew it. Even Putin knew it. We were being made an example of to other protesters: don’t interfere with Russia drilling for oil.”
Following that preliminary hearing the group were moved to the notorious detention centre, SIZO 1, also in Murmansk to await their fate.
“The place was filthy,” says Kieron who lived in Conduit Road, Crookesmoor, and South Road, Walkley, while he was in Sheffield between 2004 and 2008. “The walls and floors were covered in grime and dust. There were rats everywhere, and leeches in the puddles in the cells. Sometimes I was in isolation for 23 hours a day. Sometimes I’d be in a cell with other Russians prisoners. There was nothing to do. You’d get one hour of exercise and then back to your cell.”
Conditions were so utterly appalling, lawyers have since have applied to the European court of human rights to seek damages.
But perhaps the worst thing, says Kieron, who also worked at the University Arms pub, while in Sheffield, was the sheer boredom.
“There was no stimulation at all,” he notes. “I read books when I could but the library didn’t have much in English. I wrote five or six letters every day to friends and family. But even those had to be smuggled out via the lawyers. And all the time you’re trying to stay optimistic but it’s terrifying. Your whole destiny is in someone else’s hands.”
For six weeks, it remained that way.
Despite international condemnation and protests in capital cities across the world – including one organised by Kieron’s own family – Russian authorities remained unmoved.
Even when the Netherlands asked the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to order the release of the Arctic 30, diplomats replied bluntly. Russia, they said, would not participate in the tribunal since the matter was an internal criminal issue involving illegal acts against the country’s property.
To many, it seemed a message was being sent: this is what happens when you protest against Russia’s oil industry.
And then, with almost no indication, at the end of November the group were moved – by a 27 hour train journey – to Saint Petersburg. There, they were told the charges had been downgraded to hooliganism and given bail.
“The one thing I’d been terrified of was that I would go from being arrested to found guilty without ever seeing my family properly again,” says Kieron, who was one of six Brits among the group.
“So that was such a relief. My dad and brother flew out the next day, then my fiancée.
“It was totally surreal to be in one of the most beautiful cities in the world but be there by duress.
“Wherever I went there were people with iPads and camera filming me. The authorities wanted me to know I was being monitored. I found I started staying in the hotel.”
It carried on for almost a month until, on December 18, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – who Kieron believes orchestrated the whole thing – announced the group would be given amnesty.
The charges would stay on record but not be actively investigated. The 30 were free to leave the country.
“It took another week or so to do the paperwork but it was just the best feeling to be going home,” says Kieron, who is originally from Devon and now lives in London. “Do I regret it? I think I was naive but I’m a journalist and when I left The Times in 2012 to go freelance I’d promised myself I would say ‘Yes’ to more things.
“I don’t think anyone could predict what happened.”
Now, he’s set to chart the whole experience in a documentary.
“It was the most bizarre, bonkers, experience,” he says. “If I can’t make an interesting film about it I’m not much of a journalist.”