Monday, January 11, 2016

Indian Anti Pirate Case Sees Men Imprisoned Whilst Employed Protecting Merchant Shipping

Five Year Sentences for Britons and Crewmates
Shipping News Feature
INDIA – The tawdry tale of the MV Seaman Guard Ohio in which 35 members of the ships original crew were recently retried by a Tuticorin Court took yet another twist today when the men all received five year prison sentences from the Tamil Nadu authorities. The ship, an armed anti-pirate protection vessel dedicated to protect merchant shipping was arrested in October 2013 with a myriad versions of what actually happened, varying between her taking shelter from a typhoon to buying fuel illegally from local citizens.

What is certain is that the Court has made an example of the detainees despite widespread conviction that they were paid employees of Advanfort, a US based maritime security company which appears to have abandoned its staff as the case proceeded. In July 2014 the Madras High Court ruled that the vessel had been found in Indian territorial waters, something initially denied by Advanfort, but that she was there from necessity and therefore under ‘innocent passage’.

The bulk of the crew however remained in detention whilst the police appealed the verdict and, one year later, successfully persuaded the Indian Supreme Court to set aside the Madras judgement saying that the amount of arms aboard the ship posed a threat to Indian security and that the munitions could not be proven to be held legally by those aboard the vessel.

The latest verdict has produced howls of outrage, particularly in Britain where six of the men sentenced hail from. Mission to Seafarers said they were in touch with families of the crew, all of whom were deeply shocked and devastated at this decision and are stunned that the evidence has not unarguably proven that the men were acting legally under international maritime law given that the ship is irrefutably an anti-piracy support ship that carries crew and guards to protect merchant shipping. Ken Peters, Director of Justice and Public Affairs at the Mission to Seafarers said:

"I am horrified and filled with anguish at this decision which is deeply unfair and unjust. These men are seafarers but it seems the court did not accept the basic fact that the ship was, and is, an anti-piracy vessel. The men carried arms in accordance with international maritime law for the purpose of ensuring the merchant fleet was protected properly from the very real risk of pirate attacks and hijack. The men have already suffered so much so this is a terrible outcome. It is beyond belief. We understand that the men's defence team are examining the possibility of an appeal.”

Another charity dedicated to the welfare of sailors, Human Rights at Sea, which produced an in depth analysis of the case last year, also commented that the case appears to be a travesty of justice for the ordinary crew-members who were not aware of instructions being passed down from the employer, and who were otherwise simply doing their job, adding that the case sends a stark warning, in particular to the Private Maritime Security Industry and those who operate floating armouries in international waters, that the laws of foreign States must be known, briefed to the crew and respected as part of a voyage risk analysis and duty of care to all crewmembers. This is especially so when operating in and around any coastal States with a history of insurgency and terrorism.

To learn the full history of the case enter a suitable search term, such as Advanfort into the News Search box at the head of the page for access to the archives.

Photo: None of the crew have been permitted to leave India whilst there was a possibility the case had not been closed.