Ex-Beatle McCartney asks Putin to help free Greenpeace activists

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Former Beatle Paul McCartney said on Thursday he had written to President Vladimir Putin to enlist his help in securing the release of a group of Greenpeace activists detained in Russia.

Twenty-eight activists and two others face seven years in jail over a protest by the environmental group against oil drilling in the Arctic in which some tried to scale a Russian rig. McCartney said they were not anti-Russian or violent.

"It would be great if this misunderstanding could be resolved and the protesters can be home with their families in time for Christmas. We live in hope," McCartney wrote on his website http://www.paulmccartney.com/

He said Putin, whom he met when he first performed in Moscow in 2003, had not replied to the October 14 letter beginning "Dear Vladimir" but the Russian ambassador to London had responded by saying their plight was not properly represented by the media.

"Vladimir, millions of people in dozens of countries would be hugely grateful if you were to intervene to bring about an end to this affair," he wrote in the letter.

Quoting from the Beatles' song "Back in the USSR", which he composed 45 years ago, he wrote: "That song had one of my favourite Beatles lines in it: 'Been away so long I hardly knew the place, gee it's good to be back home'."

"Could you make that come true for the Greenpeace prisoners?" he asked.

The Prirazlomnaya oil rig which the Greenpeace activists tried to scale on September 18 is owned by state energy company Gazprom and is at the heart of a drive to tap into the Arctic's natural resources to help expand Russia's economy.

The 30 face charges of hooliganism. Investigators have said they have dropped piracy charges, which carry a 15-year jail term, but Greenpeace says those charges still formally stand.

The Netherlands has asked an international tribunal to order the release of the group, which include people from 18 nations.

McCartney has previously expressed support for the Pussy Riot protest group which performed a "punk prayer" in Moscow's main cathedral last year against Putin's close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Appeals for leniency by McCartney and other international artists including Madonna failed to help them escape a two-year jail sentence. Two band members remain in jail.

Critics accuse Putin of using the courts to punish opponents but the Kremlin denies this.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alison Williams)

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