Advanfort, employer of the ships guards jailed in India, is still in business and, surprisingly, even contacted Estonian foreign ministry last week promising to help the Seaman Guard Ohio crew now behind bars.
After having provided at least a measure of support to the ship guards including 14 Estonians arrested in India in October last year, Advanfort the naval security company vanished from sight. Founded by an Arab billionaire Samir Farajallah, after India Advanfort encountered difficulties in other countries as well and former subordinates thought it was by now written off and operating under a new name.
Teaming up with a former ship guard asking to remain anonymous, Postimees made an experiment which proved that the company which avoids queries by media and public limelight is still in operation.
In its resolution dated yesterday, the European Parliament requires that India release the 35-member crew of Seaman Guard Ohio arrested in the state of Tamil Nādu.
The swift client manager
Following the court verdict of January 11th, via various channels we sought to gain contact with Advanfort but none was answered. Neither did the company’s current manager, Samir Farajallah’s son Mohamed regarding whom India has issued an arrest warrant and against whom they have initiated a court case, react to questions posted to his private email inbox.
To find out if Advanfort was in business at all, we decided to ask about cooperation via a fictitious transit company.
To our surprise, the query sent over the weekend was answered as soon as Monday morning. Asked if Advanfort was still offering maritime security, key client manager Beverly Castro thus replied: «Thanks to taking the interest. Yes, we are still providing maritime security in risk areas and we have crews and ship guards ready in ports of Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean, and Red and Arabian Seas.»
That was followed by a thorough description of services offered by Advanfort where price up to 40 percent below competitors was promised for reliable and quality service.
Last week, after the court verdict whereby the ship guards were jailed for five years, after two years of silence Estonian foreign ministry unexpectedly received an email from Advanfort. A representative of the company notified Estonian embassy in Washington that the company was seeking alternative legal means to solve the case of the ship guards.
«The company has sent such messages before, regrettably without results,» sceptically said the ministry’s press representative Mariann Sudakov.
The last meeting with Advantfort’s representative in Estonia Fred Karu, by now no longer employed by the company, was at the end of January 2014. The foreign ministry has communicated with Advanfort both in Tallinn, Washington and London.
A glance at the Advanfort reveals it has not been updated for over a year. The contacts still list offices in various countries, including Estonia, though the Tallinn representation was closed down several years ago.
Two hours after the initial email we received even a second one from the Advanfort client manager in which she said she was expecting information regarding the region in which we needed ship guards while also offering to communicate by phone.
The next day we answered the email by Advanfort, briefly describing what our «company» was about and asked for details regarding services offered.
The question: «Which nationality security people do you employ? Can we pick the crew ourselves?»
Ms Castro: «Our military/navy background men include Europeans, Latin-Americans, Indians and Nepalese. You may choose the nationality of men you want for your team. As a rule, it takes seven days to organise the security team. But we do have the capacity for rapid response at one to two days notice.»
Asked about the size of teams Advanfort was able to send, Ms Castro said: «The size is up to your need. The usual team consists of three members, but if the client so desires we may also offer a team of two. Also, we have clients who need teams of eight.»
All the emails were polite and willingness to cooperate was repeatedly emphasised. The letters painted a picture of a successful, active and reliable company, while the nice facade hides a firm which sacrificed their employees in India to avoid trouble.
The Johannesburg mess
Eventually, in our correspondence, we decided to touch the issue and asked, referring to the ship guards jailed in India, how the situation was being solved and if they could guarantee that things like that will not be repeated with their clients. This time, it took longer for the reply to come but come it did.
«We are eagerly anticipating cooperation with you, could you send your contacts so we can talk over the phone?» read the reply. While in it as a fictitious firm, we deemed it better to back out.
Just some four-five years back, Advanfort was doing a lot better. In an interview in December last year, the ship guards recalled that up until the incident in India, they had no problems with the employer.
«Well I guess Advanfort was doing well initially as the prices were higher,» said ship guard Vladislav Koršunov. «We were always paid our wages, but they liked to wait till the last minute with port agents and always liked to cross the deadline with them. With them, there were more problems. Advanfort failed to pay and debts tend to accumulate.»
Mr Koršunov said there had been this one incident causing them headache before the Indian saga started. Namely, the ship Johannesburg airport, South Africa.
«The weapons brought to Johannesburg lacked the documents. We came from Oman and had to take the weapons from there. We started to board the plane but then the security officer came running asking of the weapons had papers. We thought what papers as we assumed all was okay. And then the trouble begun,» he described.
Back then, Advanfort did manage to get the papers sorted out and, having slept three days on airport floor, the ship guards could go to their next job.
Klaus Luhta, representative of International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots
We have received several complaints from companies all over the USA to whom Advanfort has failed to pay the bills. So, yes, over here we are well aware of their doings.
Advanfort’s reputation is awful: they sue people, pick all kinds of fights with people in the business, and do not pay their bills. On top of that, they leave their men in prisons abroad to rot.
Regarding the Seaman Guard Ohio incident, I do not believe that the weapons on board were permitted in Indian waters. But the actual problem was that the vessel, under management of Advanfort, was forced to enter Indian waters to refuel. Without that, the vessel would be left drifting on the sea. The company was aware of thereby breaching the law, but did not mind.
And when it comes to the company abandoning the men who were brought before court, I am not a bit surprised. This is just the way they do business.
They cook up excuses why they cannot seek defence for the seamen, while the owner is a billionaire and actually does have the means. But he is just a coward.
Neither do I believe that the company is still in operation because nobody would be so stupid as to do business with them.
The maritime security company
2009 – Arab billionaire Samir Farajallah establishes Advanfort.
July 2011 – Samir Farajallah’s son Ahmed is arrested in the UK for acquirement of illegal weapons and brought before court.
November 2011 – for the first time media spreads descriptions by Estonians working for Advanfort, about its dubious doings. Turns out, the company gave the ship guards old and illegal weapons and failed to pay the salaries.
March 2013 – Virginia, USA court judged Advanfort guilty of illegally acquiring firearms.
September 2013 – pursuant to conclusive verdict by the Virginia court, Advanfort may no longer purchase firearms from the USA neither own these there. Also, the company must pay fines of $180,000.
October 2013 – Indian border guard apprehends crew on board Advanfort’s vessel Seaman Guard Ohio. The 35 on board were charged with owning illegal weapons and violating Indian naval border.