Sunday, October 12, 2014

Time for British and Indian Governments to Act on Scandal of Anti Pirate Crew

Innocents Abroad are Paying the Price for Others Incompetence as Mission to Seafarers Repeats Appeal
Shipping News Feature

INDIA – US – UK – Those who read our various articles regarding the detention of anti-piracy vessel Seaman Guard Ohio together with her crew after she entered Indian coastal waters a year ago, will no doubt have thought that the case would have been done and dusted by now. In March we noted how the crew had been freed with just two senior staff detained to await the judgement of the Court. It seems however that, despite a verdict of not guilty it has been left to others to appeal the fate of those who shipped out with the intent of saving the crews of freight and passenger vessels from the ravages of pirates.

Altogether thirty five crew have been detained in India since 12 October 2013 after arrest and trial on charges including illegally entering Indian waters and carriage of undeclared firearms plus purchase of black market fuel oil. The vessel’s owner, US based Advanfort, has seemingly not endeared itself to many involved, severing ties with the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI) which said it had been liaising with the Mission to Seafarers, and sacking the entire defence team of lawyers on the eve of the hearing.

Since the arrest there has been a war of words between Advanfort’s supporters and opponents with control of the company passing from previous boss William H Watson to previous President Samir Farajallah and his son, acting President Ahmed. Ahmed Farajallah was charged with two others in the US in 2011 for a ‘straw purchase’ of 26 rifles in which he persuaded one of the others to buy the weapons before transferring them to himself, an illegal act under Federal law. As a result of his conviction Advanfort is proscribed from working for US flagged shipping companies until next year.

Advanfort has transferred the bulk of its operations overseas, principally the Philippines and Britain. The UK website functions but the US site is access by password only. Now it is likely that the six British ex service personnel and their still detained colleagues will launch a class action against their employer after reports that they are not being paid.

The Mission to Seafarers has now launched a further appeal to British and Indian authorities after the 145,000 strong petition to Downing Street in March seemingly had no effect and statements from the men and their families illustrate how desperate their situation has become. Revd Canon Ken Peters, Director of Justice and Welfare, The Mission to Seafarers, said:

“This has been the most terrible ordeal for all the crew and their families, and I am baffled that this has happened now. It has been a complex case, but the High Court Judge dismissed all charges three months ago, so the men rightly presumed that they were at last free to go. I have been working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to try and assist with the repatriation of the men. However, it now transpires that the Security Forces, known as ‘Q Branch’, have lodged a counter-appeal to have the charges re-instated in the Indian Supreme Court.

“This is really making the lives of all concerned a misery. As the men have now been held for a year, I would like to make a further appeal to the good sense and sound judgment of the Indian Government to please look again at this case, and assist in this matter, to allow the seafarers to return home to their families as soon as possible.”

The statements from the men themselves this week illustrate their depth of frustration with John Armstrong, one of the crew speaking from India, saying:

“Since the charges were dropped we were entitled to return home. Nothing in Indian law states that we can have our documents withheld by the authorities when we have been found innocent. Despite this, the magistrate court in Tuticorin overturned the High Court’s dismissal of the case and ruled we were not allowed our travel documents or luggage, which is apparently still on the ship. Now we face a further counter-appeal and retrial at the eleventh hour instigated by the Indian Security Forces. We have no idea why. Despite this injustice, our government will not get involved in the legal process.”

Writing from India, Billy Irving, summed up his frustration and disappointment in a letter openly critical of the British official stance commenting:

“I feel let down by the FCO as they have not done all they can to help us 6 UK Nationals being held in India. The FCO said to me that they would not help us, even if we are seriously ill and cannot afford any medical treatment. I feel disgusted when I read a statement in an reply email to my father, from the British High Commissioner here in India, Mr Bharat Joshi, who said, ‘It is not appropriate for the UK taxpayer to bear the cost of accommodation, medical or other associated living expenses for the men.’

“I have been a tax-payer since leaving school, I have served in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces for over 9 years, I still paid tax when I was deployed on combat operations, and to read that statement from a British High Commissioner is sickening; I feel truly let down. I have complained about how the FCO have dealt with problems I have had and yet I have had no reply.

“I have been away from home for 16 months now and I cannot wait for this nightmare to end. This has affected me and my family mentally, physically and financially. I need to get home ASAP as I have a baby on the way and other issues that need sorting. Most importantly I need to get home and get back to work so I can pay off debts and be able to support my baby. I would like to thank my family and friends for all their support. It truly has helped me cope with what is happening to us over here.”

Ann Towers, wife of Paul Towers who is also held in India urged the Indian authorities to show some compassion and allow them to come home to their families saying this was ‘the worst year of their lives’ and pointing out that her husband had given thirty years loyal service to Queen and country yet was imprisoned for trying to safeguard the lives of others. She continued:

“Words cannot express how devastated we are at Paul's situation; we are humbled by the unwavering support from close family, wonderful friends, work colleagues and The Mission to Seafarers. We urge the British Government to take a more robust stance at the injustice of the situation and facilitate the men's return home. They have all fought for this country, now it is the Government's duty and responsibility to fight for our men.”