Monday, July 6, 2015

Armed Protectors of Container Ships and Other Cargo Vessels from Piracy Still Face Jail

21 Months Pass and Crew Still Waits in Limbo as Indian Authorities Ignore International Law
Shipping News Feature

INDIA – Last week a spokesman for the maritime professional’s union Nautilus summed up the case of the MV Seaman Guard Ohio concisely saying, ‘just about every element of this case has been disputed’. So said Andrew Linnington when commenting on the detention of the privately owned US ship on a mission to defeat pirate attacks against freight and passenger carriers in the Indian Ocean. In October 2013 the ships owners, Advanfort, were thanking the Indian authorities for their assistance, insisting the vessel took shelter from a storm whilst patrolling to protect container and cargo carriers in the region against piracy.

As the story unfolded it became a series of conflicting accounts, did the ship enter port voluntarily or was she arrested by the Indian Navy? If arrested was she within the 12 mile limit or in international waters 13 or possibly 15 miles from the coast? Why was she given a clean bill of health at the very port she was taken to after arrest just a month previously?

Now, a full 21 months after that initial arrest, 35 of the original crew, including 6 Britons, are to face trial once again, charged with the illegal possession of weapons, a charge already answered in Court with not guilty verdicts, after which a police appeal meant they were unable to leave the country. The Supreme Court Judge in Delhi has referred the case back to the Magistrates Court in Tuticorin, to go to full trial, something which could eat up a further six months. One of the men, Paul Towers from Pocklington, East Yorkshire, explained:

“The Supreme Court in Delhi issued the order for a trial on 1 July. We have now received the judgement and are taking urgent advice to understand the reasons for our case being referred back to the original court who imprisoned us, which is the Magistrate Court in Tuticorin. The decision to find that there were no charges to answer came from the High Court in Madurai on 10 July 2014, however we were unable to leave India, as our passports and belongings were retained by the court, and to that end we could not return home to our distraught families.

“Obviously after long sleepless nights this week, we were devastated to hear that the Supreme Court has upheld the Prosecution appeal, after spending 21 months in India ourselves. Our families are beyond broken, both financially and mentally; to see my wife in tears is heart-breaking. The British maritime contractors have world recognised credentials to complete our duty for any shipping company.

“These credentials meet the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and Maritime Coast Guard Agency (MCA) requirements and all shipping company requirements for the use of private maritime security companies (PMSCs) operating with privately contracted armed security personnel holding approved Seamens’ Cards and Discharge Books, Maritime Fire Arms Competency Certificates, and who undertake Criminal Records Checks every six months. To be told these documents are worthless outside of the UK and to be treated like common criminals, is surely a gross abuse of our human rights, as indicated in the March 2015 by the Human Rights At Sea (HRAS) charity case study document which was issued to the press.

“I cannot express any further the pain and agony this has caused to our families and friends who have supported us throughout this protracted nightmare. My special thanks goes to Ken Peters Director of Justice and Public Affairs at The Mission to Seafarers, the British Legion and Veterans Aid UK, in their efforts to feed and accommodate us. Without this assistance we would be sleeping in the streets.”

The other five Britons held alongside Mr Powers are Nick Dunn, from Ashington, Northumberland, Nicholas Simpson, from Catterick, North Yorkshire, Billy Irving, from Connel, Argyll, Ray Tindall, from Chester and John Armstrong, from Wigton, Cumbria. The problems have caused a bitter split between the men and their employers, Advanfort, a US security contractor. According to the crew none have been paid wages since the arrest and legal and financial assistance from the company has been ‘sporadic’. According to Advanfort, it has been let down by its insurers, AON, which it claims was responsible for covering the crews living expenses during their detention. Advanfort have failed to issue any press releases in the past 8 months.

Nobody in this story comes out with any credit except agencies such as the Mission to Seafarers and Human Rights at Sea, which recently issued the previously mentioned, very concise report on the case. Certainly the Indian authorities should look closely at their behaviour, whether or not there was ever a case to answer. The act of dismissal by the Supreme Court meant that under international and Indian Law the men should have been released and given back their travel documents. The retention of these by the Tamil Nadu authorities is a clear contempt of Court and violation of India’s own Constitution.

During the initial detention over sixty Indian officials from eight government agencies traipsed through the ship whilst refusing to sign the visitors book thus effectively achieving anonymity. The fear is that, having apparently made such a pig’s ear of a legally acceptable prosecution, the Court may be tempted to ignore all the failures by the authorities and reduce the case to merely the facts which it chooses to accept. This would mean that a licensed and registered private security operation, sanctioned by several western governments to protect international shipping from the ravages of armed pirates, has been viewed by a local Court as a territorial invasion by heavily armed militants.

Photo: The crew on their way to Court on a previous occasion.