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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Suspected Hijackers Appear in Court

ReutersA suspected hijacker of the cargo ship Arctic Sea being escorted at Moscow’s Basmanny District Court on Friday.

The eight suspected hijackers of the Arctic Sea cargo ship that went missing in the Atlantic Ocean appeared in a Moscow court on Friday to be formally charged with piracy and kidnapping.

“We were saving ourselves, we were drowning,” Igor Borisov, 45, told the  Basmanny District Court. “We didn’t hijack the ship.”

A lawyer for the defendants, Konstantin Baranovsky, said the suspects were “peaceful environmentalists.”

All eight men pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutor Zelimkhan Kostoyev said the ship was carrying $2 million worth of timber to Algeria, dismissing suggestions that it was carrying illegal weapons.

The authorities have so far not released a detailed account of why pirates would target a ship carrying timber in some of the world’s best-policed seas, and the mass of conflicting information in the saga has sparked speculation that it had a secret cargo of arms or even nuclear materials.

The defendants face a maximum of 15 years in prison if found guilty of piracy and kidnapping.

Defendant Dmitry Bartenev, 41, an unemployed Russian citizen living in Estonia, was dragged handcuffed through the courtroom. His head bowed in a cage, he said solving the maritime mystery was not in Russia’s jurisdiction.

“A Russian court does not have the right to hear this case,” he said. “The alleged illegal act happened in Swedish waters on a ship with a Maltese flag.”

He declined to say what was on the ship.

Friday’s arrests mean that the detention of the suspects has been extended by up to two months. The eight men include one Estonian national, one Latvian, two Russians and four — including Borisov — who are registered with no citizenship.

The authorities said the Arctic Sea was hijacked on July 24 off the coast of Sweden by eight armed men who forced the 15-member crew to sail for Africa. The hijackers then threatened to blow up the ship if their ransom demands were not met, the Defense Ministry said. The Navy boarded the ship off the Cape Verde islands last Monday.