RUSSIA has formally dropped criminal charges against Greenpeace activists arrested in a protest over Arctic oil drilling, under a Kremlin amnesty extended to all 30 who had been facing up to seven years in jail if convicted.
The environmental group said 29 of the 30, who are still in Russia after being freed on bail, have now been amnestied and will be free to leave for their home countries as soon as they secure visas. Another activist's case will be reviewed.
Russia's treatment of the activists -- who spent two months in detention and faced hooliganism charges punishable by seven years in jail -- had drawn criticism from western nations and celebrities.
The amnesties will remove an irritant in relations in what Kremlin critics say is a move timed to improve Russia's image ahead of the Sochi Olympics.
"This is the day we've been waiting for since our ship was boarded by armed commandos almost three months ago," said Peter Willcox, who captained Arctic Sunrise, the Greenpeace vessel used in the protest.
"I'm pleased and relieved the charges have been dropped, but we should not have been charged at all."
President Vladimir Putin has said Russia's response to a Greenpeace protest should serve as a lesson, and Moscow would take tougher steps to guard against interference in its development of the region.
Russia says activists endangered lives and property in the protest at the state-controlled energy giant Gazprom's Prirazlomnaya platform in the Pechora Sea, a key element of Russia's plans to develop the Arctic. Greenpeace said the boarding of its icebreaker by Russian authorities was illegal and says its activists conducted a peaceful protest.
Meanwhile, Russia's cabinet has approved the allocation of nearly $50m (€36m) in extra subsidies for the organisers of the Sochi Olympics.
The cabinet's decision, reported by the RIA Novosti news agency, takes the total number of subsidies for the Sochi Organising Committee to the equivalent of more than $420m (€307m).
The cabinet said the extra money would help finance the committee's activities.
The allocations for the organising committee are a small share of the total Sochi Games costs that amount to $51bn, making them the most expensive Olympics in history.
They will take place from February 7 to 23.