Thursday, January 22

Pirates not the only ones holding merchant sailors hostage

Modern-day pirates are not the only kidnap threat that merchant seamen face these days. They also risk getting detained for much longer periods by national governments as they criminalize accidents. Take the following better-known examples:


While at anchor, the HEBEI SPIRIT was struck by an adrift barge in December 2007. The end result was South Korea’s worst oil spill. The ship’s Captain Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan remain jailed in south Korea until just recently. They have been detained for much longer than most seafarers have been held by pirates off Somalia. Here is the South Korean Government’s explanation why these two were deemed responsible:

The appeal court in Daejeon jailed Capt Chawla for 18 months and fined him Won20m after finding him guilty on two charges related to the oil spill. The court said Capt Chawla should have gone full astern to drag anchor to prevent the collision with the drifting crane barge Samsung No 1 which had earlier broken its tow.

The court said the master should not have pumped inert gas into the tanker’s cargo holds because it increased the spillage of oil when the explosive risk was low. It added the Hebei Spirit should have been ballasted to create a 10 degree list which would have prevented the oil spill, while three and a half hours to transfer oil between cargo tanks was too long. - Lloyd’s List

They apparently acted in good faith to try and deal with the situation. Unfortunately, those acts were later used against them. Imagine being sent to jail because someone hit your car while it was legally parked. Only last week have these two been freed on bail.


The PRESTIGE was an oil tanker that broke up and sank off Spain leaving a huge oil slick in it’s wake.

On November 13, 2002, while the Prestige was carrying a 77,000-ton cargo of two different grades of heavy fuel oil, one of its twelve tanks burst during a storm off Galicia, in northwestern Spain. Fearing that the ship would sink, the captain called for help from Spanish rescue workers, with the expectation that the vessel would be brought into harbour. However, pressure from local authorities forced the captain to steer the embattled ship away from the coast and head northwest. Reportedly after pressure from the French government, the vessel was once again forced to change its course and head southwards into Portuguese waters in order to avoid endangering France’s southern coast. Fearing for its own shore, the Portuguese authorities promptly ordered its navy to intercept the ailing vessel and prevent it from approaching further.

With the French, Spanish and Portuguese governments refusing to allow the ship to dock in their ports, the integrity of the single hulled oil tanker was deteriorating quickly and soon the storm took its toll when it was reported that a huge 40-foot section of the starboard hull had broken off, releasing a substantial amount of oil.

At around 8:00 AM on November 19, the ship split in half, and sank completely the very same afternoon releasing over 20 million gallons of oil into the sea. The oil tanker was reported to be about 250 kilometers from the Spanish coast at that time. An earlier oil slick had already reached the coast. The Greek captain of the Prestige, Apostolos Mangouras, was taken into custody, accused of not co-operating with salvage crews and of harming the environment. - Wikipedia

His attempts to save the ship were thwarted by a game of hot potato by the local European Governments. One might say that these actions by French, Spanish and Portuguese governments contributed to the eventual breakup of the ship and resulting disaster. As thanks for being put in such a situation, the Spanish Government threw the Captain in jail. He sat there for 83 days until a three million Euro bail was paid. To this day he has to report to the police in Greece regularly as criminal charges remain unresolved.


The Captain of the CORAL SEA was arrested and thrown in a Greek jail after cocaine was found hidden in the ship’s cargo of bananas. Despite there being no evidence that any crew members had any knowledge of the drug shipment, the Greek Government decided to throw him in jail anyway with a 14 year sentence since he was responsible as Captain. Only recently has he been cleared of these charges and released. Hear is the Captain commenting on his treatment in this matter:

“The police in Europe and America will not come to me saying that they found something on the ship. On the contrary, they will hide it from me and follow where the drugs are going. If the freight comes to its destination, and in the end something comes back to me, then they will know that I am guilty. But these in Greece arrested me because I was the closest. It is interesting that the boxes that the drugs were in were immediately destroyed and thrown away. Without any search, or looking for fingerprints. We brought them a book from Eduador with fingerprints of all who were on the ship, only for them to say that they do not need it because they do not have the boxes” says -.–.-Kristo Laptalo with his wife.Laptalo. He stressed that sea farers have to be ready, because something like this can happen, and it is most important that the company stands behind them. -


Sometimes ships are ‘arrested’ for any number of reasons, such as if the owner has unpaid bills. The SOL TRADER was recently arrested in Slovenia. Once again the crew become mere pawns in the matter:

The Sol Trader was impounded on 6 January in the Adriatic port of Koper for non-payment of debts to a fuel supplier.

Predrag Brazzoduro told the Zagreb-based news portal that food and water supply to the crew was halted after their first day in the port. He also said the crew has not been paid in months, so seafarers have no money to buy food.

He called for Slovenian officials to allow the ship to be laid up so the crew can come ashore. - Fairplay

A vessel arrest or the abandonment of a ship in a port can quickly turn a ship into a jail for its crew. A jail where nobody is responsible for the inmates. These cases do get sorted out and crews paid, eventually. I wonder how many ships currently being held by the pirates of Somalia have been abandoned by their owners?


On November 7th, 2007, While departing San Francisco in fog, the COSCO BUSAN struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. It is my understanding that at least six member of the crew were detained in the US as ‘Material Witnesses’. After about a year, apparently two of them were permitted to leave the country after completing videotaped depositions and written statements. The Captain and three others remain trapped in the US, but otherwise free to move about. Then again, it is hard to move about without income and salary payments have been an issue.

I did leave this one for last as this is the one incident where chances are that the crew can be seen as at least partly responsible for the accident. (Most of the blame is being assigned to the pilot though). However, they should not have to be detained for so long, especially if they are only going to be treated as ‘witnesses’ to the accident.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that a shipping magnate was kidnapped in Greece last week:

ATHENS, Greece, Jan. 20 (UPI) — A 74-year-old Greek shipping tycoon is in good condition after being freed by kidnappers following payment of an estimated $39 million ransom, officials say.

Pericles Panagopoulos was freed Tuesday, eight days after he was abducted. He was found by a passing police car near the industrial district of Aspropyrgos, just west of Athens, The Times of London reported. - UPI

Did they realize that they didn’t need to actually kidnap a ship, instead kidnapping a vessel owner. I wonder if they saw all the ransoms being paid to the pirates and said ‘Me too!’ At any rate, it seems that they picked their target wisely, looking at the payoff. I suspect that the family might not have been so generous had it been one of their ships that was taken instead.

The goal of this article is to point out some of the lesser-known risks of being a merchant sailor and how sailors are treated. This is a problem even in the US. A good example is the story of Captain Villy Larsen of the cargoship DANICA WHITE’s run-in with the Coast Guard. He ended up spending over 100 days in a US jail for something that probably could have been resolved in a more positive fashion. (Read his story here: “Villy Larsen: I regret my behaviour” ) that has been recognized by the US Coast Guard Commandant (and fellow USNI guest blogger) Thad Allen to the point of having issue a statement on the subject:

USCG boss urges seafarer respect - WASHINGTON, DC 5 March – Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen has urged members of his service to treat commercial seafarers “with the utmost professionalism and respect.” In a communication sent to “all hands”, Admiral Allen acknowledged that he has “received reports from highly respected professionals recounting Coast Guard boardings, inspections and investigations not displaying professionalism. Additionally, some have said they lost the complete trust they once had in the Coast Guard and are fearful of retribution if they challenge the Coast Guard.” Allen wrote, “We must change this perception,” noting that licensed and documented mariners are “professionals who share our interests in a safe, secure and environmentally compliant industry.” He recalled the words of Alexander Hamilton (the first US Secretary of the Treasury who launched the Revenue Cutter Service) that free men are impatient of “everything that bears the least mark of domineering spirit” and said that applies “as much today as it did in 1790 and equally to international mariners and our trading partners”. - Fairplay Homepage

In many cases there is no voice of authority to speak out for the rights of the seafarer. However, it is not a reason to take advantage of them.

(Cross posted at the US Naval Institute Blog)

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1 comment:

Humanitarian Central said...

Great post Fred. This type of arrest and detainment is again, an issue that relates to having weapons on board ship. If you go to the wrong country, the ships master and crew can be arrested or detained on charges of gun running, and the ship impounded. Many people are saying that the ships crew should be armed. They are not thinking of the legal and liability implications that face the master, the crew and the ship owners.