The International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P) stressed the June 24 Indian Court hearing for 35 detained crew members of the Seamen Guard Ohio protection patrol boat should serve as a call for action by the International Maritime Organization to set standards for security ships escorting commercial vessels through pirate-infested waters.
The men were arrested by the Indian Coast Guard in October on weapons charges after their ship purportedly drifted out of international waters into domestic territory during at-sea refueling.
“Piracy is a continuing threat to world mariners,” stresses Captain James Staples, MM&P’s Senior Advisor. “Multi-national naval flotillas cannot protect every vessel sailing the African-Atlantic, Asian-Pacific and Indian Oceans.”
Staples explains, “The onus to ward-off pirates is reliant on privateers. These are professional soldiers, distained by many governments who know these ships are on protection details, yet, they overzealously enforce domestic gun laws because there are no international regulations that specifically address the role of these necessary armed forces.”
The 170 member-countries of the United Nations’ IMO need to define international maritime security; regulate it and globalize the criteria in the same manner shipping companies adhere to procedures recognized by the International Organization for Standardization, according to Staples.
The M/V Seamen Guard is owned by U.S.-based AdvanFort maritime security corporation. The crew members are 14 Estonians, 6 Britons, 3 Ukrainians and 12 Indians.
Following five months of intense international media coverage, diplomatic inquiries and a 150,000 signature petition campaign imploring British Prime Minister David Cameron to intervene, 33 of the men were released on bail. They cannot leave India. They are partially confined in a Chennai hotel. They can leave the hotel but must check-in at a local police station in the morning and evening. The captain and executive officer remain imprisoned.
The crew is charged with violating the Indian Arms Act because it did not receive written domestic authorization.
A case under the Essential Commodities Act was also registered for procuring 1,500 liters of diesel through local agencies in an unauthorized manner. The diesel fuel operator was also arrested.
“MM&P and professional mariners worldwide are alarmed by reports that the accused seamen have endured inhumane treatment in a maximum security penitentiary and that the court intentionally delayed due process,” says MM&P chief-of-staff Captain Klaus Luhta. “Traditionally, only a ship’s captain is arrested for a violation because he is ultimately responsible for obtaining proper documents. Throwing everyone aboard behind bars in rodent-infested, unsanitary prison cells is an outrage.”
He emphasizes, “Increasingly, we are seeing the wrongful criminalization of mariners who, in many cases, are being played as pawns in a larger international chess game that pits the powers of nations ill-equipped to combat piracy against shipping companies determined to protect their people and cargo from attacks and hijackings.”
According to a company news release, AdvanFort blames the ship’s insurers for the crews’ plight. “More than seven months after Seaman Guard Ohio sailors were detained in India, the crew is now getting the cold shoulder treatment from insurers Aon, Lodestar and Travelers as they stonewall the claims of the men who used to serve their country as soldiers. AdvanFort has a comprehensive insurance package worth more than $700,000 in premiums for the 35 men for the last two years.”
The statement continues, “We hope the insurers can provide the support we need for the sake of the sailors who need food, shelter and medical help so that they can be back in the arms of their loved ones.”
Even if the case is dismissed, the men may be prevented from leaving the country because of outstanding and unpaid fees and costs, including a hefty hotel bill – all of which the company contends should be paid by the insurance companies.
MM&P, June 23, 2014