India drowns ship guards in sea of bureaucracy

Laevakaitsjad Indias.

PHOTO: TAIRO LUTTER / POSTIMEES

In all likelihood, the 14 Estonian ship guards acquitted in July will need to celebrate their second Christmas in India – the local officialdom unwavering under pressure by foreign ministry, calls by international organisations and applications by lawyer to let the men go home.

Hari Narayan, a lawyer for the team of AdvanFort-owned Seaman Guard Ohio, said in answer to questions by Postimees that as the ship guards were judged not guilty, they applied for their documents to be returned. The documents were not returned, however, citing the time allotted to accuser to appeal. Indeed, the accuser – a representative of Indian police – in September contested the decision to Indian Supreme Court. «Until the decision is not annulled, the accuser needs to submit to court decision; otherwise, it’s contempt of the court. Thus, I see no reason why the court has not returned the documents,» explained Mr Narayan.

According to ship guard Alvar Hunt, the Indian human rights committee has also referred to the men’s right to have documents returned. «The proceedings of the return of passports, personal items and guarantee money was referred to a lower magistrate court in Tuticorin which, disregarding the law, refused to carry out the proceeding and therefore the application is again filed to the highest court of the state,» said Mr Hunt.

Nearly two weeks ago, International Maritime Organisation (IMO) called upon Indian authorities to release the men. According to IMO, India has expressed concerns regarding the increasing numbers of anti-pirate vessels in the Indian Ocean. «International Transport Workers’ Federation pointed out that armed security guards are needed for the protection of sailors, and in connection to that they called upon Indian authorities to release the Seaman Guard Ohio team,» say the minutes of IMO meeting.

Mr Hunt added that Indian authorities are also breaching Law of the Sea. «Standard practice in such cases would be to arrest the ship, in the more serious cases also the captain as the person responsible. From there, the process continues between the accused ship company and the country of the incident, on basis of civil law in court of arbitration and, as sanctions, there may be fines etc. Imprisonment of the team and other persons not responsible for a longer period of time, however, is gross disregard of international Law of the Sea practice.»

The ship guard agreed to provide a short overview of the Estonians’ everyday problems, but underlined that the more important topic is their unfounded keeping in India. To this day, the men are living in hostels or renter apartments, to pay for which loan has been provided by foreign ministry. The last time their employer paid them wages was in October 2013, and in the spring supported them with a small sum of money. «Up to now, lawyer’s fees have been covered by the company, in a small measure we have also been supported by the sailors’ helps organisation Mission to Seafarers. Though the local prices are lower as compared to Estonia, during an extended stay a considerable amount is spent. Meanwhile, we lack any kind of income. As you may understand, this is quite an additional burden to the families,» explained Mr Hunt.

«Also, we are definitely not untouched by health problems. To this day, we have been unable to find money for a general medical assessment such as blood tests, and regarding other tropical diseased, and parasites. Although we are no longer imprisoned, we are definitely all affected by the stress of long-term separation from the families. Over the year, a lot has changed. I would not like to dwell on that too deeply,» he said.

Talking about input by Estonia and Great Britain to bring the ship guards back home, Mr Hunt praised the former British foreign secretary William Hague who was more active in dealing with the situation than his current successor. The acquittal of the ship guards this July came immediately after Mr Hague’s visit to India. The last time the ship guard issue was raised was by the British Prime Minister David Cameron, three weeks ago at the G20 summit in Australia during a meeting with Indian leader Narendra Modi.

Mr Hunt said he did not want to criticise Estonian foreign ministry while admitting their impact is low. «As progress, thus far, has been poor or lacking, Estonia and the UK are shying away from confirming the real situation with the case. Both countries find themselves in an embarrassing situation, unable to stand for the right of their citizens in a foreign country. Obviously, the little Estonia lacks leverage to diplomatically affect India as the scope of trade relations and other cooperation is too small. With the United Kingdom, there may be unwillingness to sacrifice too heavily to deliver six Brits, but maybe there has been no suitable political bargain,» said Mr Hunt.

«Thus, we are also not surprised at the comments by foreign ministry; however, we are disappointed at the bent towards «political correctness» in the description of the case. Very often, it is being «forgotten» to mention that since July 10th 2014 there are no valid accusations towards us and thereby no legal basis to hold us in India.»

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