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.

(Posted by Fred Fry)

Posted by FFry in Maritime Security

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  • Dee Illuminati

    The wonderful thing about having a blog is if there is no voice of authority to speak up for somebody wrongly detained, perhaps minus Lou Dobbs… in respect for his advocacy of ICE agents detained, you get the opportunity to do so.

    We see that parts of Mexico are no longer safe for the USMC (which is technically Navy) and I would have thought that parts of Mexico were not safe from the Marines…..

    The world we are living in is changing quickly under our feet and quick organizations and institutions will have to increase their capacity for change as the world around them does so.

    I think it was Peter Drucker who said: That the pace of change inside an institution has to be faster than the rate of change that surrounds it to become succesful. Communication is a tool of change, and this Blog points out the premise.

    “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.”

  • Bill

    Having worked in South Korea extensively, it was common knowledge that foreigners are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to legal matters and the transferrance of blame to a foreigner involved in any legal matter that also involves a Korean national or Korean corporation is routine, I’m afraid. That may sound like a very broad statemement, but I saw it be true too many times. Those of us foreigners (I was working there with Swedes, Germans, Norgies and other Americans) were strongly advised to avoid even so much as arguing over an inflated taxi fare…. So the silly charges leveled and duration of detention that was described in the story above does not surprise me at all..and that kind of treatment is not limited to seafarers.

  • doc75

    You have to wonder if the one year detainment of the Cosco Busan’s crew had to do with where the ship incident occurred: San Francisco. It caused the largest oil spill ever in SF Bay near the most environmentally focused population in the nation and Nancy Pelosi’s district. The local prosecutors (even if federal) probably felt like they had to throw the book at them. And when it comes to the environment, the locals probably don’t care about habeas corpus — in stark contrast to how they feel about habeas corpus and the GWOT.

  • How does that contradict anything I said?

  • eastriver

    Doc75, I think you overestimate the SF Bay location. Federal prosecutors anywhere are always looking to add notches to their belts, and an environment-related prosecution is an easy win and a “good” headline.
    Consider the Migratory Bird Act, which permits the prosecution of anyone who kills a migratory bird, even though the actor had no intention of killing migratory birds or anything else. Criminal intent need not be proved, just the death of the bird and the cause. There is a tug mate who missed a buoy in Buzzards Bay, MA; grounded the oil barge he was towing, and was sent to jail for 8 months over this error.
    Merchant mariners who sail in US waters truly live in a degree of fear lest they become involved in some sort of incident. The Live at Five images of being lead off in cuffs are too hard for prosecutors to resist.
    And if it’s that bad here, as Fred has so aptly illustrated, it just keeps getting better elsewhere. Thank you, Fred, for the post.