Five years behind Indian bars for fourteen Estonians

Helen Mihelson
, reporter
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Photo: Tairo Lutter

Yesterday, Tuticorin court in India sent 14 Estonian ship guards into prison for five years. As the sentence was proclaimed, the ship guards were taken straight to prison from the courtroom. The ship guards and their representatives have 90 days to decide whether to appeal. 

«We are acting to get them home as soon as possible,» said Estonia’s foreign ministry.

Yesterday afternoon, a representative of foreign ministry said the written court judgment had been officially forwarded and is already being analysed by lawyers. The ministry has notified people close to the ship guards.

Foreign minister Marina Kaljurand promised to keep up activities in order to bring those jailed back home, and said she was meeting the Indian ambassador regarding the issue this Thursday. «For further steps we will need to consult with India as it makes no sense to do anything imprudent,» she said at a press conference yesterday. «We have already launched consultations.»

The foreign minister added she was in contact with the UK including the British embassy in the Indian capital New Delhi. «Estonia is considering whether to send additional diplomats into the Indian capital, asking for the President of Prime Minister to intervene,» she said.

Repeatedly, Ms Kaljurand underlined that Estonia cannot intervene in Indian court procedures. «Estonia respects court decisions in other nations. Today we are aware that these men were judged guilty and we need to live with that awareness,» she said.

The foreign minister rejected comparisons between the ship guards and Eston Kohver having been held in Russia. «Mr Kohver was kidnapped from Estonian territory and held against international law. The ship guards are in India legally,» she explained.

Ms Kaljurand assured journalists that Estonia has applied political pressure on India on foreign minister, prime minister and presidential levels.

At that, she harboured not much hope of Estonia being supported in the process by UK or Ukrainian authorities whose citizens were judged guilty in India regarding the selfsame incident. «Both nations have let it be known that they regard this as a routine consular case as they have significantly larger numbers of their citizens in similar circumstances abroad,» admitted the foreign minister.

Ms Kaljurand said the options for the ship guards to come home is to ask for a pardon as the judgement enters into force and are pardoned; or else are returned to bear the punishment in Estonia under an ad hoc agreement or within some broader treaty entered into with India.

All future steps are up to analysis of the court ruling. «As the court ruling is over 100 pages long and its analysis takes time, it is too early to talk about definite steps,» noted Ms Kaljurand.

The ship guards will have to personally decide whether to appeal the court ruling, within 90 days, and the Estonian foreign minister said the ministry cannot intervene with it.

Extra story I

Mother of ship guard: unbelievable!

Mother of Lauri Ader (pictured) Maret Veikat said the court judgement was unbelievable: «Or rather, it has yet to hit home with me.»

Ms Veikat said the court process cannot be considered right as the sessions were mainly in the local language and the ship guards had no interpreter.

«I think the process should be annulled, it was in Tamil! But the state won’t help, neither will Buddha. The men had to sign testimonies but even the Hindus did not know what they were signing,» she said.

Extra story II

Estonia labours to get citizens home

Yesterday, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves discussed the issue with foreign minister Marina Kaljurand and afterwards stated via press release that he shared the burden of people closest to ship guards «as such judgement was unexpected to us all.»  

«Estonia uses all options based on diplomatic and political contacts so that our fellow citizens – citizens of the European Union – might return home as soon as possible,» continued the press release.

Extra story III

Estonian ambassador surprised

Estonian ambassador in India Viljar Lubi said the decision was for him a surprise. «The whole time the lawyers were reflecting to us that they thought the case went well and they managed to refute the arguments of the prosecutor,» he said.

According to Estonian consul present at the court session, the ship guards had been surprised themselves. «The consul took the personal belongings of the men. Now, we will see with lawyers what we can do,» said Mr Lubi.

Last October, India’s ambassador to Estonia and Finland Ashok Kumar Sharma said that even in case of a conviction the Indian government would pardon the 14 ship guards.

Commenting on the option, Mr Lubi said that if that be realistic, it would be worth trying.


October 12th 2013: Tamil Nadu coastal guard apprehends vessel Seaman Guard Ohio with 35 on board, including the 14 Estonians.

October 18th: crew arrested.

December 30th: ship guards officially charged with tanking illegal fuel, illegal handling of firearms, and entry into territorial waters.

March 26th: Tamil Nadu court ruled to release the ship guards on bail.

July 10th: Tamil Nadu supreme court rules to reject the accusation which is appealed to Indian supreme court three months later.

July 2nd 2015: Indian supreme court finds legal mistakes and judges a new trial is needed.  

December 17th: Tuticorin court says judgement will come on January 11th 2016.

January 11th 2016: Tuticorin court judges 14 Estonian ship guards for five years of imprisonment. From courtroom, they were taken to prison.

Source: PM