Seafarer union Nautilus International has demanded an independent commission of inquiry into the handling of the criminal case against C. Yuriy, the Ukranian master of river cruise vessel Viking Sigyn, after a collision that caused the deaths of 29 South Korean passengers.
During a rainstorm on 29 May, the vessel collided with a small sightseeing boat, Hableany, carrying 33 people, including South Korean tourists, a tour guide, and two Hungarian crew. The collision caused the smaller vessel to capsize and sink, resulting in 29 deaths. Subsequently, the master, reportedly in his mid-60s, was imprisoned in Hungary and is due to face trial next week.
However, Nautilus is looking to intervene on his behalf, arguing that various factors in the case have been overlooked. “Too many outdated and unfit day-trip vessels have been allowed on the Danube in Budapest and as such, it’s important that the details of this case are reviewed, and the master granted a fair trial,” said Holger Schatz, Swiss national organiser at Nautilus International.
If convicted, the master – who was the subject of spurious allegations in the wake of the disaster, including the charge that he had been involved in another accident in Holland – could be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison. “We can confirm that even though the captain of the Viking Sigyn was on board the Viking Idun on 1 April, he was not serving as the ship’s captain at the time of the incident,” said Viking in a statement in June, following the claims. “Viking Idun was under the command of another captain.”
The allegation that the captain had “deleted data from his phone” relating to the Budapest case also proved untrue. The Forum Inland Shipping (FIS) – a coalition of European inland navigation experts – argued that there was a “clear prejudgement” of the Ukrainian captain “from the beginning of the investigation, which also serves to suppress unpleasant questions about possible omissions by companies and authorities”.
Schatz continued, “In its analysis of the omissions in this case, the FIS points out further inconsistencies that it says have not been sufficiently investigated. An independent expert investigation into shipping accidents – as is customary in Switzerland – has not yet been set up and the original intention of conducting the trial in London due to the international dimension has also been abandoned in favour of a trial in Hungary.
“The Hungarian authorities should set up an independent commission of inquiry and let the trial take place outside Hungary.”
Whether such an inquiry takes place or not, scapegoating of seafarers is a common pattern in the wake of shipping disasters and is regarded as a strategy for authorities to dodge blame.
One of the most famous cases came in 2002, concerning oil tanker Prestige and its Greek captain, Apostolos Mangouras. Having been caught in a storm, the vessel ruptured a tank, split in two, and sank; salvage company Smit said that 75,000 tonnes of subsequent oil pollution might have been avoided if Spanish authorities had heeded Mangouras’ pleas for towage to a safe harbour. After a 14-year legal battle, Mangouras, now 81, was sentenced to two years imprisonment in 2019. At the time, David Heindel of another union, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), called the case “one of the worst examples of the knee-jerk criminalisation of seafarers.”
In 2019, a Nautilus survey of seafarers found that 90% of respondents were concerned about the prospect of criminalisation, while more than 60% felt it impacted on the way they felt about working in shipping.