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Published: 28 March 2015
Renewed call for India to let seafarers go home
The plight of the "abandoned" crew of an anti-piracy protection vessel is damaging India's international standing
Two seafarer charities, Human Rights at Sea and The Mission to Seafarers, have called for urgent action to resolve the plight of the crew of the SEAMAN GUARD OHIO, a Sierre Leone-flagged vessel that was deployed in commercial anti-piracy protection services to merchant vessels in the Indian Ocean.
The crew is made up of five Ukrainians (including the captain), and six British, 14 Estonian and 12 Indian nationals. Ten of the men were vessel crew and the rest were armed guards. They were initially detained when the vessel was arrested in October 2013 by the Indian Coastguard off Tuticorin in the State of Tamil Nadu, allegedly while sailing in Indian territorial waters. At the time of the detention, the vessel's owner, US-based AdvanFort, was a member of the international Security Association for the Maritime Industry.
AdvanFort stated that the Coastguard and police had allowed the vessel to enter port to refuel and shelter from a monsoon and claimed that all weaponry and equipment on board was properly registered. It also claimed that the vessel had been illegally lured into port in order to make an arrest. The crew arrests were also protested by the ITF, while the Sierre Leone Ship Registry condemned the seizure of the vessel.
Bail applications were rejected and, say the charities, the crew were held in appalling conditions in prison. Even after bail was finally granted for most of the crew in March last year, their release was delayed for almost two weeks, while two of the crew, the captain and one Briton, were refused bail and continued to languish in prison.
When the case came to trial at the Madras High Court last July, all the charges against the crew, including the most serious one of offences under India's 1959 Arms Act, were thrown out. The crew were released, but the Tamu Nadil police held on to their passports. In August the State of Tamil Nadu filed an appeal, which has been admitted by the Supreme Court, and the crew have been detained in India to this day without access to their travel documents.
Speaking last month, one crew member said: "Our families face financial ruin, men have lost their wives and houses have been repossessed." The charities have expressed concern about the deterioration in physical and mental health of some crew members. The level of support - or lack of it - for the crew from AdvanFort has also come under the spotlight.
The Reverend Canon Ken Peters, Director of Justice and Public Affairs at The Mission to Seafarers, said: The crew have been held for over 500 days, firstly in prison in very harsh conditions, then on bail, and now just waiting for their passports to be returned to get home. They have long since had the charges against them completely quashed and they need to get back to their anxious families."
This month Human Rights at Sea published a study listing all the known facts of the case. The study acknowledges the security concerns of Tamil Nadu State concerning insurgency and terrorist actibities, but its conclusion pulls no punches: "The continued unlawful detention of the crew despite quashing of all charges by the Madras High Court is in breach of both Indian and international human rights law. Failure to rectify the situation extends the suffering of the crew and their families and undermines the lawful application of the Rule of Law in India."
While the suffering inflicted on the crew by internal Indian politics is unconscionable, the case highlights wider concerns about sovereignty and "anarchy" arising from the growth of a "third party" commercial anti-piracy industry, even though many of the coastal states affected by piracy do not have the resources to police their own territorial waters effectively.
Somali piracy in the Indian Ocean has abated, but the number of incidents in South East Asia and off West Africa has been increasing. These involve acts of piracy and robbery and attempted robbery following boarding when vessels are at berth.
- The Dutch government, a "Lib-Lab" coalition (VVD and PvdA) is still struggling to find ways to meet the demands of Dutch ship owners and allow Dutch-flagged ships to employ private guards. In the latest attempt to win over support from PvdA MPs, De Telegraaf has reported that, under the latest proposals, ship owners would still have to apply for official protection by Dutch Marines, but would be allowed to take on private guards if the ship has to deviate a minimum of 100 nautical miles to pick up the Marines, or if a Marines unit cost a minimum of 20% more than private protection. It is further proposed that even when private guards can be taken on, they have to be employed by certified Dutch companies. It is hoped that this compromise formula will overcome fears of creating a "mercenary syndrome."