Thursday, March 27, 2014

Crew Bailed As Anti-Piracy Case Drags On

Ship and Two Senior Crew to Remain in Custody
Shipping News Feature

INDIA – So, after months of prevarication the Indian Court decided it could grant bail to most of the crew held captive following their detention, and that of their ship the MV Seaman Guard Ohio, when they were returning from anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean. Yesterday bail was granted to 33 of the 35 men accused whilst still holding the Ukrainian Captain Dudnik Valentyn and the British Security Chief, Paul Towers, in prison, this after several confused appearances in Court in a situation where conflicting stories appear to be the norm. The official charges now appear to be entering Indian territorial waters bearing undeclared arms and purchase of subsidised fuel illegally which equates to smuggling.

Even if the men are released on schedule (previously bail was granted and rescinded on appeal) the case is likely to continue for some considerable time as the facts regarding the detention of the vessel remain hotly disputed, five Britons and two other Ukrainians are to be ‘lodged securely’ locally, along with twelve Indians and fourteen Estonians. Other Indians accused of supplying the vessel with fuel illegally may also be retained somewhere in the prison system. The Indian authorities seem dedicated to somehow prove the men were up to no good despite their professional calling. Earlier in the week the men’s employer, AdvanFort said it had paid out over $2 million towards legal fees and salaries to the families of the guards in anticipation that insurance it had taken out would be available to reimburse it for costs.

The security company claims AON, which it says is charged with ensuring private insurers fulfill their obligations to beneficiaries, had ‘dragged its feet’ over AdvanFort’s complaints that the Travelers Insurance group had failed to pay an outstanding claim for the debacle whilst Lodestar Insurance had paid over only $15,000, far less than the amount claimed. The firm said they had ‘expected the insurers would fulfill their obligation, reimburse the company for the money so [it] could be used to help the families of the guards, and prevent them from having to turn to charities for help’. This last refers to the fund organised by the Mission to Seafarers to support the imprisoned crewmen.

AdvanFort states that its vessel was detained for entering Indian territorial waters, although the vessels skipper apparently maintains that they were in international waters. The company insists that the vessel might have unwittingly drifted due to high winds, there was a cyclone storm at the time, but if that was the case this should have been treated as a case of force majeure by the authorities. The prosecution says the cyclone had no effect in the region where the ship was spotted refueling at sea, allegedly observed by satellite after reports from locals. Following the granting of bail by the Court the Mission to Seafarers published the following statement:

"Following news this morning [March 26] from the court in Chennai, The Mission to Seafarers is able to confirm that the judge has agreed in principle to the release on bail of 33 of the 35 crewmen who are currently in prison, pending further confirmation from the Indian lawyers that the 33 will be able to meet the conditions of the bail agreement. These are likely to include a bail fee for each man being properly secured and lodged in India, and for evidence to be put forward that the men will have satisfactory accommodation locally during the period when they are on bail awaiting trial.

"We are pleased that most of the men are now likely to be freed on bail, possibly as early as this Friday; however we are still very concerned for the welfare of the Captain and the Security Guard Manager of the MV Seaman Guard Ohio, both of whom have been again denied bail. The Security Guard Manager is one of the six British seafarers whose families have been campaigning in the UK for the government to do more for them through a petition that has gathered 147,000 signatures and was presented to the Prime Minister at Number Ten last week. Families and the Mission have also approached the Foreign Office in the UK and the Deputy High Commissioner’s Office in Chennai India to plea for a swift resolution to the matter.

"We are waiting for further advice on this highly complex case but will be doing all we can to ensure that the remaining seafarers in prison and their families are supported. We are also waiting to find out what the next steps and timings are in preparation for a trial of all the men."

Photo: The forbidding frontage of Palayamkottai Central Prison from where most of the accused were moved after complaints they were being kept in squalid conditions.