Calls to free captain facing 20 years in Mexican prison on drug trafficking charges

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.

Captain Lasota and the 21 crew 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 charge and subsequently deported. According to captain Piotr Rusinek, designated person ashore for Intership Navigation, the vessel managers, 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 captain Lasota could face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty, Rusinek told SAS.

Rusinek fears for the health of the captain as reports received from Tepic Nayarit prison state he was unwell in August with his temperature fluctuating to up to 40 degrees. It is suspected he may be suffering from Zika or another insect-borne disease. There have been delays on a court hearing regarding getting medical care for captain Lasota, it is currently set for 29 sept 2020.

There are also doubts over the validity of his arrest. Rusinek stated the Cyprus flagged vessel underwent two anti-narcotic inspections in the loading port of Baranquilla, Columbia. This counteracts the prosecutions’ claim that the captain did not carry out due diligence in preventing the drugs to get onboard. According to an in-depth account of the situation published by InterManager, on 13 January 2020, the crew also alerted the Mexican authorities to the drug find and no evidence of crew involvement was encountered.

A further two bulk carriers, the 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 arrived also from Baranquilla, however, the crews 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 very young overzealous prosecutor,” said Rusinek.

Kuba Szymanski, secretary general InterManager, agreed with Rusinek stating that Mexico seems to be the worst place for these kinds 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 case of the UBC Savannah, and fate of its captain, raises a wider issue of the criminalisation of captains onboard vessels, Vassilios Demetriades Cyprus Shipping Deputy Minister told SAS.

In March 2019 a proposal was made at the 106th session of the Legal Committee (LEG 106) of the International Maritime Organization to form a Working Group on the prevention of seafarers’ involvement in maritime crimes/right to fair treatment in case of detention. “This thus reflects the relevant concerns of the shipping industry and the [Member] States. The preliminary discussion was planned for March 2020 at the LEG 107, but unfortunately it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” explained Demetriades.

“Currently, only one individual – the captain of the ship – is paying the ultimate price. Cargo owners, ship owners, ship managers, rest of the crew and many, many other players are benefitting while one man pays for it,” said Szymanski to SAS.

The Attorney General of Justice of the State of Tamaulipas are handling the prosecution. SAS has contacted them for comment.