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Relatives of ship protectors holding their breath

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PHOTO: Tairo Lutter / Postimees

Even though the Chennai court acquitted all ship protectors India detained four years ago, their relatives do not dare breathe easy just yet. The year 2014, when the Indian court cleared the men of all charges while no one got to go home, is all too fresh in their memories.

“I’m scared to rejoice. We remain cautious,” said sister Julia of Roman Obeltšak. “The last time the court cleared them of charges, the prosecution appealed after waiting almost 90 days.”

The Indian prosecution now has another three months to appeal the ruling.

Mother of Estonian ship protector Lauri Ader, Maret Veikat, remains similarly cautious. “I’m absolutely convinced they will not be allowed to return to Estonia just yet. History tends to repeat itself – they could be released and come home, but they simply won’t be given clearance to leave as they lack an entry permit. It is black humor a la India,” she said, thinking back to 2014. The men couldn’t leave India after the favorable ruling back then because they needed a permit from the police.

“It is a paradoxical situation in that the court has found charges to be baseless and that the case should be closed. The men need a permit from the police to leave the country, while the latter are dragging things out as representatives of the prosecution,” said Viljar Lubi, former Estonian ambassador to India.

Three months later, the ruling was appealed in the Indian supreme court.

“Time will tell, but they will be released from prison; that is a fact,” Maret Veikat said. (The ship protectors were released from prison today – ed.) She said that the ruling is welcome and thanked the foreign ministry.

“If you keep bombarding and bombarding, things will start moving eventually. Our foreign ministry and government cannot change the ruling, but they can protest a situation where it is taking too long to make one,” the mother said.

Veikat exchanges letters with her son a few times a month and gets news about her son from others. “The mood varies wildly. Last week caused intense psychological pressure,” she said. The mother added that her son no longer believed he could be found innocent.

“Lauri believed they would be found guilty but that their punishment would be reduced so they would get out,” Veikat added. She added that the men are tired of hoping. “Hopes have been shattered so many times. They’ve been coming home for Christmas for four years now.”

Obeltšak got in touch with his brother last week. “They’ve been pessimistic as of late, while some hope remains. He does not want to talk about his hopes at all. He simply describes his life and tries to put on a brave face, which is why he talks about other things. For example, about how his day went, and it always went the same,” Julia Obeltšak said.

Veikat hopes the men could make it home for Christmas this time. If the United Kingdom and Estonia pressure India to rush the men’s travel documents and bureaucracy.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Sven Mikser told Postimees that the men should be released from prison following their acquittal and would not have to wait for the prosecution’s decision in prison.

“That said, whether they will be allowed to leave the country depends on whether the prosecution will appeal. We hope the ruling will not be appealed, and that we will learn of a corresponding decision soon,” the foreign minister said.

Deputy Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry Annely Kolk is prepared to travel to India to meet with Tamil Nadu authorities and find out the prosecution’s plans.

“Unfortunately, we cannot say at this time how much time things might take in India, or when the men will be released. The embassy in New Delhi is trying to find out what will happen next, as well as address consular matters, including as concerns identification papers and a possible need for accommodation,” Maria Belovas, director of the ministry’s PR department said yesterday. She said the case is resolved once the men are safely back in Estonia.

The Estonian consul in India Mats Kuuskemaa flew to Chennai yesterday, where he will likely meet with the Estonian ship protectors today. The consul promised to make sure the men have a place to stay after they are released.

“We believe and hope for the state’s support, it is all we can do. The Estonian state understands that you cannot make something from nothing. The men went to support us, and now it’s the other way around. We are living for them,” Veikat said.

Mikser said that it cannot be said at this time how the government will help them men financially, and whether it should be treated as aid or a loan.

“We definitely do not want to put impossible obligations on anyone. Right now, we are working so that families could be reunited and the men return home. We can address technical and practical questions later,” Mikser said.

The foreign minister said he hopes clarity is not three months away. “Not everything depends on us. I do not want to write a blank check; however, we are working hard to make sure the ruling would not be appealed, and that we would have clarity considerably sooner than 90 days from now.”

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas took to social media yesterday. “Today (yesterday – ed.) we got good news from India at long last. /…/ It is to be hoped that this decision will pave the way for the men’s imminent return. Even though the prosecution can appeal the ruling, the Estonian foreign ministry and embassy are doing everything in their power to solve the difficult situation and allow the men to return to their loved ones after more than four years,” the PM wrote.

Veikat said that problems will remain after the men come home.

“These men are broken souls who need a lot of support – their psychological situation is difficult; how to find jobs, go on with their lives,” the ship protector’s mother said.

The 35 crewmembers of anti-pirate vessel Seaman Guard Ohio were arrested on October 18 by the police of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The crew included 23 foreigners – 14 Estonian citizens, six Brits, and three Ukrainians. The crew was charged with illegal refueling, illegal handling of weapons, and illegal entry.

Employer abandoned its people

“Advanfort has a terrible reputation: they sue people, pick all manner of fights with businessmen, and fail to pay their bills. They also leave their sailors to rot in foreign prisons.”

That is what Klaus Luhta, representative of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots told Postimees last year.

Indeed, India is far from being the only country in which Advanfort, founded by Arab billionaire Samir Farajallah, has found itself in trouble. The employer has taken virtually no interest in the fate of its employees since the arrest of MV Seaman Guard Ohio’s crew. A few worried messages in the initial months have been the extent of the company’s involvement.

The company has abandoned the imprisoned sailors and largely disappeared in recent years.

Years spent in the tropics

  • October 12, 2013: Indian coast guard detains the Seaman Guard Ohio with 35 men on board, including 14 Estonians.
  • October 18, 2013: the crew is placed under arrest.
  • December 30, 2013: the ship protectors are officially charged. Indian authorities accuse the men of illegal refueling and handling of weapons, and illegal entry.
  • March 26, 2014: the Tamil Nadu state court decides to release the men on bail.
  • April 5, 2014: 34 ship protectors are released from prison, one remains in custody.
  • July 10, 2014: the Tamil Nadu supreme court decides to reject charges against the crew. The decision is appealed three months later.
  • July 2, 2015: the supreme court finds that procedural mistakes have been made and the case needs to be heard again. The case moves to a lower instance court.
  • January 11, 2016: the first instance court of Tuticorin sentences the men to five years in prison.
  • January 27, 2016: the crew decides to appeal the ruling and move for bail. The court rejects the bail request two days later.
  • June 1, 2016: the court session meant to take place that day is repeatedly postponed until it finally takes place in October. Estonia prepares a prisoner transfer agreement with India. The government approves the agreement in late October.
  • November 2016: the trial ends, and the court takes time to deliberate. Diplomatic channels between Estonia and India are used to deliver the crew – PM Ratas talks to his Indian colleague, Mikser summons Indian ambassador.
  • November 3, 2016: the ship protectors are paid a visit by Consul Mats Kuuskemaa and Foreign Ministry Deputy Secrete General Annely Kolk.
  • November 6, 2017: the Chennai court starts deliberations concerning the appeal. A decision is made 21 days later.
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