Five Indian crew acquitted over claims of transporting illegal explosives

The five seafarers have been acquitted of charges of illegally transporting explosives. Credit: Samira Nadkarni

After thirteen months of false imprisonment in the Greek Korydallos Prison Complex, five Indian seafarers have been acquitted of all charges related to accusations of transporting illegal explosives and allowed to return to India.

Rohtash Kumar, Bhupinder Singh, Jaideep Thakur, Satish Patil, and Gagan Deep Kumar of the bulk carrier Andromeda were accused of transporting illegal explosives by Greek authorities when the ship made an unscheduled stop for repairs while transiting from Turkey to Djibouti and Oman in December 2017.

“We had all the manifesto documents and evidence regarding the containers and provided everything to the Greek Coast Guard immediately. Everything was done as per regulations,” said Satish Kumar, speaking of the 39 containers of legal commercial explosives and 3 LPG tanks that were part of the manifesto.

“We were told the checks would take two hours. A year has passed since then with them just checking the cargo. We were in prison until then,” said Jaideep Thakur. Incarcerated crew members (numbering five Indians, two Ukrainians, and an Albanian) pointed out that they could not know what was in the containers outside of the official documents provided to them but this point was not taken into consideration. Additionally, three days after the ship was searched, the captain, chief officer, and the shipowner were also arrested and held.

The cost of the legal battle in Greek courts required that the crew raise €10,000, a vast sum by most standards and impossible for the crew members who, in many cases, had yet to be paid by the shipping company for several months. Following their arrest and detention, the seafarers said they were entirely abandoned by the Indian agent of the shipping company, Omega Ship Management.

As a case of criminalisation of seafarers and seafarer abandonment, the Maritime Union of India (MUI) and Captain Sanjay Prashar, the Greece-based NGO Indian Group Team (headed by Harmesh Singh), and the Indian Embassy in Greece intervened to seek justice on their behalf.

Speaking to Safety at Sea, Captain Sanjay Prashar, the chairman of the Indian Maritime Federation (IMF), noted that this incident hardly sits in isolation: it is the third incident of its nature where seafarers have been falsely accused and imprisoned in Greece for over a year before due process has followed. He argued that there was a clear bias evident in the length of time taken for such cases when it came to seafarers from the Global South, and that in none of these cases had the Greek authorities noted their error or sought change, or offered reparation to those affected.

Prashar indicated that the multiple cases highlights the inadequacy of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) to protect seafarers rights.

“The Indian Government should seek the Maritime Labour Convention extended to the fair treatment of seafarers, which shall give due respect to human rights at sea for seafarers globally,” said Prashar, arguing that imprisonment under these circumstances was not only a case of seafarer abandonment but also a violation of human rights due to unfair criminalisation and persecution.

The crew of the Andromeda were not only left without resources and unable to speak local languages to gain assistance, but the toll on their mental health was evident as Bhupinder Singh spoke of having repeatedly considered suicide during the period of his false incarceration.

Prashar pointed out that current format of the MLC fails to consider incidents of this nature, which is a gap that sees seafarers from the Global South unfairly penalised, particularly if they are unable to raise funds to gain their freedom. Additionally, after incidents of this nature, seafarers may be left largely destitute as they are offered no compensation for the period of their imprisonment or reparative support in its aftermath.

Amar Singh Thakur of the MUI stated, “We will be following up the case to the fullest extent of the law and we will be demanding that the Indian Government fight for the rights of the seafarer workforce. We will be pursuing the 18 months of unpaid wages from Omega Company, and plan to raise the issue of seafarer criminalisation at the upcoming IMO meeting.” Captain Prashar added to this, noting that they would be seeking to black list the PNI Club and owners of the ship for failing to comply with MLC 2006 and would be arranging to sue Greek authorities on behalf of the seafarers for illegal imprisonment. “This is not the only case of this sort we’ve seen; this is a real gap in the current system and must be addressed at an international level,” he said.

Omega Ship Management and the Hellenic Coast Guard have been contacted for comment.