Ship guards: invited over, at gunpoint

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The men held in Indian jail close to half year say they’ve never been interrogated, neither has any official substantiated their arrest.

Estonian ship guards Lauri Ader and Roman Obeltšak, released this past Saturday from Chennai prison in India, were interviewed by Postimees in hotel Shelter where they currently live. The men describe their arrest, and life in jail.  

What happened on October 11th last year as you met Indian border guards? How did it all begin?

Ader: There were no explanations from the border guard.

Obeltšak: They just said: «Heave the anchor and follow us.» The captain said we have nothing to do there and that we are not supposed to enter your territorial waters. Then they did a circle around us, thought a little, and again came to say that we should heave the anchor and come with us. That’s all. In the beginning I looked they were making rounds around us and something bad is up. The captain explained them what we had on board and said we were did not have to go along. We were in international waters, and still they ordered us to follow them.

Ader: They invited us over, at gunpoint.

Obeltšak: Exactly. And this other thing. They said: order a pilot at your own expense. The captain said he’d not order a pilot as it isn’t needed. Said if you want, order yourself. In a couple of hours, there came the pilot with two persons. In the beginning, the pilot entered the border guard vessel. Then, two people with automatic weapons boarded our ship and we were directed to the harbour.

What happened then, in the harbour?

Obeltšak: We stood in the harbour for an hour. Nobody checked us. After that, the first people came around to check us. I also participated in that. The usual procedure is that if you have some dangerous stuff or something like that on board, then the inspectors have a look. They make a list of weapons and people, for instance. Then he signs and sets a seal underneath. Here, this wasn’t done. For five days they kept coming and checking – weapons, people, and passports. They said all was OK. We asked for the signature and the seal, but nothing.

Ader: They counted the ammunition and the weapons every five hours. Some guy came who wanted to know how much weapons we had, what were the numbers of the weapons, and how much ammunition we had. They kept getting it wrong. Had three cartridges over, then five cartridges missing etc.

When were you arrested?

Obeltšak: On October 17th came the police and asked also me and Lauri what we were doing on the ship and what was our role.

Ader: I was asked funny questions. They asked if I had been on NATO missions. I said yes. Then they asked how many of your friends got killed there. I said contact Estonian defence ministry and ask them.   

Obeltšak: I was asked how much they pay me for salary. The same day they started asking us for passports. I asked why do you want to take that away from me, it’s property of the Republic of Estonia. If you want to do that, contact our state. At that, they said hand over the passport at once. Full stop. Me and two more persons were supposed to do that. I said this is property of Republic of Estonia and I’m not handing it over.

Ader: Meanwhile, I called the foreign ministry and said we are threatened to be attacked if we do not surrender the passports. The ministry advised us to give up the documents without causing problems. We were ready to keep them.

Obeltšak: We were ready to keep them, but then things could have gotten worse. In the morning (October 18th – T. R.) we handed them the passports. A lady said we were going to be taken to a hospital. We were taken to a police station. They said they were helping us and asked for signatures. I asked for explanation what I was supposed to sign as I don’t know the language. They said sign or it’s getting worse.

Ader: We were simply in shock.

Obeltšak: Then we asked on what basis we were being held, but got no answer. Then, by bus, they took us to a prison. I thought, to formalise papers.

Ader: I was the first to step in. I was scratching my head thinking what on earth am I getting into.

What about the conditions in prison?

Obeltšak: Not too bad during the day, but at nights we had to sleep on concrete floor and that was cold. That caused health problems. On the floor there was just a sheet. Footwear was for a pillow. Then we were brought to the Chennai. In the prison, during the first couple of weeks, no one was punished under our eyes.  

Ader: Afterwards we saw how security guys took their batons and beat people in the head. The prisoners nearby were watching to see when they would pass out. The beat the prisoners till the bamboo sticks broke in pieces.

Were the prison guards doing the beating?

Ader: They weren’t guards. There’s some king of a special group who is sent to beat some.

How did the guards look at you?

Obeltšak: Some said they did not understand why we were there at all as we had done nothing. The general opinion in India is that we are very bad. Our situation is very different from the Italian case (In 2012, two Italian ship guards killed two Indian fishermen, thinking them to be pirates – T. R.). In the Italian case, there were two dead bodies. What did we do? Nothing.

How was the food in prison?

Obeltšak: We tried to eat, in the beginning, but it made us sick. We drank water out of the barrel that stood in the sun and from whence all drank. The barrel was cleaned by the same person who cleaned the sewage, and with the same tools. 95 percent of us had diarrhoea. Later, thanks to the ministry, we got water from the outside in bottles, and the health got better.

When did you know for sure that you’ll get out?

Ader: Yesterday (April 5th – T. R.). The moment we stepped out the prison gates.

Obeltšak: Here, you cannot believe anything. Before you see it with your own eye, you cannot believe. This is what experience tells us.

Ader: We waited for more than five months. The whole time we waited for something to happen, the next day. The whole time in jail, we hoped. They promise you something, the promise isn’t kept, but hope remains.

Obeltšak: We learned from the TV that we’d be let out on bail. All the locals said you’ll get out at once. We got out only a week and a half later.

Ader: For me, the funniest thing is that during the five and half months, no Indian official has interrogated me. No one has told me why I’m in prison. No explanations to us whatever. The only one that has informed us is the foreign ministry and Margus (Estonian consul in India, Margus Särglepp – T. R). We are really thankful to them that they were able to visit us and inform us.

And, from now on, you will be going to the police station twice a day, to get registered?

Ader: Yes. We will have to show up at ten on the morning and at eight at night. We were told point blank: they will try to provoke you but don’t yield to that. The police chief gave me his personal telephone number and said: is somebody hits you don’t hit back; call me, I will come and settle it.