Thursday, January 28, 2016

Jailed Guardians of Merchant Shipping Against Pirates Get Support

Union Money Available for Appeal
Shipping News Feature
INDIA – The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is to pay the legal support costs for the 35 crewmembers of the Seaman Guard Ohio who, earlier this month were jailed for five years over allegations that they entered Indian territorial waters with unauthorised weapons and ammunition whilst they were clearly on armed patrol, targeting pirates preying on merchant shipping. The men are to now begin proceedings to formally appeal the decision, a process which given events so far could be rather lengthy.

The Sierra-Leone flagged Seaman Guard Ohio is owned by AdvanFort, a US-based firm that provided private maritime security services and was then a member of the international Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI). The vessel was involved in supporting anti-piracy operations by providing armed escort services to commercial vessels travelling in what were then quite literally the pirate-infested waters in the Indian Ocean.

In October 2013 the vessel was intercepted by the Indian Coastguard off the Tuticorin coast. Though assertions were made that the vessel was actually 12.8 Nautical Miles (NM) from shore, authorities had concluded they were in fact 10.8NM from shore and within Indian Territorial Waters. 27 months later on from their initial arrest, the Tuticorin court handed down a five year hard labour sentence to each of the 35 men. ITF seafarers’ Section Chair Dave Heindel said:

“We have now completed a full legal analysis of the Court’s judgment and we firmly believe there are grounds for appeal. We will match our determination with funds. We hope that the flag of convenience flag state, Sierra Leone, will also be moved to help these seafarers.

“This is a clear case of criminalisation of the vessel’s crew. They have been sentenced for supposedly being in charge of weapons that they would never have handled. How can you imprison a ship’s cook for five years for weapons possession when the only thing he’s handled is pots and pans? It’s an injustice. We trust that this point will be accepted on appeal.”

Heindel reserved his criticisms of the entire case for the vessels owners and the employers, Advanfort, which appears to have abandoned its staff as the case proceeded. He continued:

“The real scandal is that the company responsible, AdvanFort, has been able to play fast and loose with rules, regulations, vessel registration and insurance, thereby dropping the ship’s crew and the armed guards into this mess. Having done so they have abandoned their employees and washed their hands of them. Given its behaviour throughout this affair, AdvanFort does not deserve to continue to exist in business.”

A number of maritime charities, organisations and, Foreign Departments and Embassies have been fighting for recognition of and support for the plight of the crew since their arrest. In welcoming the ITF decision to pay the legal fees, Human Rights at Sea CEO, David Hammond, said:

“In the UK we have literally begged on behalf of the families for financial support to fund the crew’s legal costs over the past years, though previous calls have been ignored with some views expressed that as some of the crew are Private Maritime Security Personnel they are not afforded the same protections as seafarers. Had funding been made available based on existing evidence as presented in previous court hearings we believe that the crew could have had more comprehensive legal support from the outset not just in India, but also supported internationally to properly fight this case.”

“It has been the families, welfare organisations such as The Mission to Seafarers and for the UK crew, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British Prime Minister, who have kept the issue alive. We understand that ITF has previously contributed to legal costs and the new financial pledge is clearly welcomed, but we hope that it will be extended for the full extent of the legal case in support of the families and not just for a singular appeal.”

Our story last July detailed the flimsiness of the case against the crew, if not their employers, and, having been unable to leave the country since October 2013, how the men have effectively now been imprisoned for over two years whilst the authorities batted the facts between the Courts. All that can be hoped is that diplomatic pressure can speed up the appeal process for those who were originally paid to protect innocent seafarers during one of the most traumatic circumstances of modern times.

To learn the full facts of this case simply enter suitable keywords, such as Seaman Guard, into the News Search box at the top of the page.

In other ITF news the organisation responded to the Spanish Supreme Court’s decision to sentence Captain Mangouras to two years imprisonment over the 2002 Prestige oil spill. In 2002 the flag of convenience tanker burst one of her twelve tanks in a fierce storm and her master headed for the Spanish coast to seek assistance. This was refused and the ship forced to remain at sea rather than enter harbour for shelter.

The damaged ship was then forced away from French and Portuguese waters before finally breaking up and causing the worst oil pollution incident in Spanish history. Over 60,000 tonnes of oil are estimated to have been lost and polluted beaches in Galicia and beyond but the Captain was deemed innocent by all but the Spanish authorities, including apparently such as Greenpeace. Dave Heindel remarked:

“This decision represents the dying gasps of a 14 year old attempt to deflect blame onto the shoulders of an octogenarian man, who has been cleared in the court of world opinion and by his peers. Thankfully it is likely to be as unenforceable as it is illogical. This innocent man cannot again be made to sit needlessly in jail.

“The Mangouras case was one of the worse examples of the kneejerk criminalisation of seafarers. The ITF, like many other organisations and individuals, was able to support him during that ordeal. This latest piece of victimisation reminds us that we must all remain vigilant to protect seafarers from these injustices.”

Photo: The Seaman Guard Ohio crew have been shuttled between prison and effectively house arrest during the whole legal process.