We, 31.05.2023
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Five years in jail explained

Liis Velsker
, reporter
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Photo: Sander Ilvest

While lawyer to ship guards Palanivel Muthusamy claimed they managed to refute almost all accusations against the Estonians, the verdicts reveals that only two fell away from five. 

The court verdict is 159 pages long and rather detailed. Statements of prosecutor and arguments of the court are described in detail.

Only one sub-clause is separately dedicated to the defence of the men, about half a page, where all 35 ship guards say they have done nothing wrong and are guiltless, have spent six month in prison, do not understand the local language, and ask for a lawyer to represent them.  

In conclusion, the ship guards including the 14 Estonians were sentenced to prison for five years on the basis of three clauses: possession of banned weapons, absence of weapons permit, and entry into Indian territorial waters with an armed vessel. They only escaped two charges: failure to notify of possessing a weapon (to a local police station, for instance) and pre-planned crime.

In his substantiation of the verdict, the judge says that the crew members who come from various nations including India are educated people with broad experience, in the know of international maritime law. Therefore, assesses the judge, it might be assumed that they would do a preliminary check about the company and its earlier activities before signing up for work.

In the eyes of the court, the men presented no evidence to prove their innocence, and as they entered India’s territorial waters and violated the law of the land, the tough punishment is deserved.

The Lawyer Mr Muthusamy said they he was not able yet, yesterday, to file the application for the men to be released on bail and with that the separate application to appeal the verdict. The lawyer said he would do that as soon as Estonian embassy has given him the money for the fee, and as he has paid it, said Estonian Public Broadcasting.

«As the money has come to our account, we pay the fee and then on the very next day we can file the application. The application to release the men on bail will be reviewed after two weeks,» explained Mr Muthusamy.

The lawyer added that after the bail and conditional punishment are established, the time will be set for the discussion of the appeal.

The location issue

The court agrees with the statement of the prosecutor that the vessel was at 10.8 nautical miles from the Island of Velangu Challi. This is an island farthest from the coast of India, covered with wild nature, where there are no human inhabitants and which has already sunk about a metre below sea level due to excessive coral harvesting.

Pursuant to the court verdict, the ship Seaman Guard Ohio sailing under the flag of Sierra Leone stood at 08°52.0’N 78°26.7’E. A glance at the map says that is over 13 nautical miles. Indian territorial waters reach to 12 nautical miles from the shore. Also, data of movements of Seaman Guard Ohio refer to it having been farther than 13 nautical miles from the shore. The main argument of the defence was that the ship was using a map by now outdated.

With the court verdict as an official document, it is remarkable that the names of most of the 14 Estonians are misspelled, one Estonian and several foreigners totally lack the Christian names.

The typos aside, the investigation has been bulky. The prosecutor has involved 44 witnesses and presented over a hundred physical evidences. Among others, the evidences include 35 weapons, 5,682 units of ammunition etc.

The defence has not asked anyone to testify for the men; as evidence to defend them, 79 items have been brought – mainly the men’s passports and their seaman’s passports i.e. discharge books. Also, there are a couple of evidences about the US security company Advanfort including the company’s insurance and a document about the condition of the weapons on board, and Seaman Guard Ohio’s temporary certificate.  

Modified automatic weapons

Regarding the weapons, the main dispute is about whether six weapons found as the ship was searched are banned in India or not. These are 7.62 x 51 millimetre calibre automatic weapons by the German manufacturer Heckler & Koch. In India, automatic weapons are prohibited for civilian use.

The defence said the weapons had been modified to be automatic. Among other things, the lawyer referred to ballistic expertise admitting that the weapons did not function as intended (bullets are not flying out of them as long as the trigger is being pulled or the magazine is emptied – edit). Still, the expert assessment says the weapons come under the automatic weapons banned in India. The court failed to consider the argument of the defence and went by the original document of the weapons.

Also, the crew had no weapons permits. The defence explained that on board the vessel the weapons were kept in a locked place and only the captain had the key. Thus, the crew had no access to the weapons.

In court, the accused explained that their employer, the US security company Advanfort was involved with anti-pirate fight, but the court has been presented no evidence of licence from USA or any other state regarding that.

The crew said that Seaman Guard Ohio was taking weapons to cargo ships so these could defend themselves against pirates. The Indian court, however, views the weapons and ammunition on the vessel as threat to the state. The court notes that Advanfort who hired the men never came nor stated in defence of the men that the weapons belong to the company.

List of convicted Estonians:

Lauri Ader

Igor Blinkov

Andrei Gortšagov

Alvar Hunt

Aivar Jõgiste

Kristo Koha

Vladislav Korsunov

Raigo Kustman

Roman Obeltšak

Dmitri Pappel

Denis Suhhanov

Igor Totrov

Aleksei Tutonin

Renee Tõnissaar

Source: PM

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