Calls to free captain facing 20 years in Mexican prison

Fence in front of Mexican flag. Credit: MicroStockHub/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

Captain Andrzej Lasota has been languishing in one of Mexico’s maximum-security prisons, facing drug trafficking charges for 14 months with no sign of a trial on the horizon. Colleagues have expressed doubts over the legitimacy of his arrest and claim that he is at the centre of a miscarriage of justice.

Lasota and 21 crew members of bulk carrier UBC Savannah were arrested on 27 July 2019 when 225 kg of cocaine were found during the offloading of cargo in the port of Altamira, Mexico. The crew members were released several weeks later without charges and subsequently deported. According to captain Piotr Rusinek, designated person ashore for Intership Navigation, the vessel manager of UBC Savannah, the latest hearing took place on 16 June 2020 to establish evidence to be discussed at the trial. The trial date is still unknown and Lasota could face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty, Rusinek told SAS.

Rusinek fears for the health of Lasota as reports he obtained from the Polish Consulate stated that Lasota was unwell in August with his temperature fluctuating up to 40°C. It is suspected he might be suffering from Zika or another insect-borne disease. There have been delays on a court hearing regarding getting medical care for Lasota, which at the time of writing was set for 29 September 2020. SAS is awaiting information on the outcome of the hearing.

There are also doubts over the validity of his arrest. According to Rusinek, the Cyprus-flagged vessel underwent two anti-narcotic inspections in the loading Port of Baranquilla, Columbia. According to Rusinek, this counteracts the prosecutions’ claim that the captain did not carry out due diligence in preventing the drugs to get on board. According to an in-depth account of the situation published on 13 January 2020 by the international trade association for the ship management industry, InterManager, the crew also alerted the Mexican authorities to the drug find during discharging operations and no evidence of crew involvement was encountered.

According to news sources online, two other bulk carriers,  UBC Tokyo and Delphi Ranger, were detained in the same port when drugs were found in the same cargo holds on 7 September and 21 November 2019, respectively. Both vessels also arrived from Baranquilla, but the crew and captains were either not charged or released shortly after being arrested. “This goes to prove that the incarceration of the captain is not based on law, which applies equally without discrimination, but more subjectively and politically driven by a very young overzealous prosecutor,” said  Rusinek.

Kuba Szymanski, secretary-general at InterManager, agreed with Rusinek, stating that Mexico seems to be the worst place for these kind of cases and claimed that certain prosecutors and police ignore the procedures, rules, and regulations of international shipping. The nationality of the captain, as a Polish national, could also have played a part in his continued incarceration. “A citizen from ‘superpower’ countries wouldn’t have to endure this. The captain of UBC Tokyo, who has a German passport, spent two weeks under home arrest instead of prison. During trial, the judge dropped the charges against him for exactly the same case,” said Rusinek.

The Attorney General of Justice of the Tamaulipas state is handling the prosecution and has been contacted by SAS for comments.