An Indian secretary played a remarkable role in getting Estonian ship guards home quickly. Corresponding efforts began a month prior. Half the airport had become emotionally invested by the time the guards’ plane finally took off in Chennai.
The anatomy of the diplomatic operation that kept the Estonian public in suspense will be recounted by the deliverer of the 14 men – Deputy Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry Annely Kolk, whom the men now affectionately call Lioness.
You went to India three times?
When I went there the first time in August of last year, my main aim was to visit the men in prison. Also, to meet with Indian officials to discuss the case and introduce myself.
When I went over the second time this October, I had a different mission: to express our displeasure concerning the fact the ruling had not been pronounced in a year. The last court session took place on November 29, 2016 – that is not befitting a state based on the rule of law. I believe every such meeting took us closer to the men’s release.
Let us go back and talk about the ins and outs of the foreign ministry. You spent years under public pressure to secure the release of the ship guards, while you were powerless in the face of bureaucracy. How often did people resort to curse words in that time?
I believe there have hardly been two days we haven’t discussed the matter at the ministry in the past three years. It is one of the most difficult cases the consular department has ever had to handle. The consul went to see the men, we delivered them letters and money. I don’t know about curse words… We mainly talked about what else we could do: where we could raise the issue? All our diplomats knew the agenda by heart.
What was the order of the day?
We demanded a fair trial for the ship guards inside a sensible time frame. Especially when sessions were postponed, and the prosecutor didn’t show.
Can you think of a moment where you received new information and thought: great, another thing we don’t need?
There were occasions. For example, when letters to loved ones disappeared following purely technical reasons – new software. There were a few curse words then. We wanted so much to help; that letter was everything to their loved ones.
Things were most difficult in January of 2016 when news of the conviction came. That was a shock. Marina Kaljurand was minister at the time, and we were all attending the ministry’s start of the year seminar. No one had expected it to be this severe as lawyers had been optimistic.
It was the same when we learned the judge had decided to remove themselves. More curse words flew then. I let them loose, the others remained very civil.
Are you still convinced the court in India is independent?
I’m not convinced, while I know it should be.
The judge wanted to remove themselves in October, and the entire case was on the verge of collapsing in second instance court. It is said that is when Minister Sven Mikser summoned the Indian ambassador from Finland and let them have it so to speak.
The court had spent a year writing up the ruling, and when the judge wanted to remove themselves, it came as a shock. Mikser is an extremely polite person; however, he expressed his displeasure concerning how something like that could happen at a time like that. Things were far removed from a fair trial indeed. There was already talk the case would go to a new judge and begin again. The men had spent 18 months in prison by that time.
The diplomatic apparatus of the United Kingdom is probably among the most powerful in the world. Why couldn’t they secure the release of the ship guards sooner?
They were in the same boat as us from the first: we cannot interfere in another country’s administration of justice. It was not a matter of rescuing them. Prime Minister Jüri Ratas called his colleague in India to talk about the situation of the ship guards, and I know Theresa May has also been in contact with Mr. Modi for the same reason. The Brits, Estonians, and Ukrainians did not stand separate in court – it was the same case. We spoke for everyone all along.
You never had a trump card or political incentive with which to speed up the process?
The only levers we had were diplomatic.
I imagine you had three scenarios of how things could play out and what to do in your desk drawer.
Those scenarios numbered six at one point. We thought of absolutely everything. For example, we didn’t know whether it was possible the court would not rule and instead send the case back to first instance court. We also hoped the court would shorten the punishment enough for the men to have served their time already.
What was your darkest scenario?
That the court would uphold the first instance ruling.
What was your mission description?
To get the men home quickly. Or at least to have confirmation they would be allowed to leave and would not have to wait 90 days only to discover the matter would be appealed. Confirmation the matter would not be appealed was paramount.
Describe your toolbox – had you any advantages?
All the high-ranking executives I had met a month prior, in October, were my advantages. Journalists have asked me why we held those meetings. The idea was to be able to dial a number and ask what comes next once the ruling came, instead of having to first set about establishing contact.
How did the release of the ship guards happen?
We have a secretary from Tamil Nadu working at the embassy in Delhi who sat on the phone since Sunday calling all the agencies whose permission we needed. They know how things work there and proved indispensable. We were still talking to officials at 9-10 in the evening. Think about receiving a call every ten minutes: “Have the documents been signed? Have they returned from lunch?”
It felt like we were seeing old acquaintances by the time we met with them. Securing a meeting with the state prime minister was a good signal that things might really turn out for the best. No one told us during those meetings that it was certain the ruling would not be appealed or that the men would be allowed to leave.
I believe it was the embassy secretary who told us on Tuesday that the government’s position had been signed. Mats (Estonian Consul Mats Kuuskemaa – ed.) and I hugged each other then. Emotions were high when they took the government’s position to the foreigners’ office. It was ready before lunch; however, because it was the death anniversary of the previous PM of Tamil Nadu, traffic was crazy – I do not know where everyone was headed. We thought it would never arrive. The local authorities met us half way by using sirens to transport the document to the foreigners’ office. When we heard the sirens, I said we need to send for the men – we will get them out today!
What was in that letter?
That the government has no objections to the ship guards leaving India. A lot of officials had to sign that document.
Did you once hear Indian authorities admit the ship guards’ rights had been violated that they regretted it?
I saw quite a lot of sympathy for the ship guards and their families. Because four years is a long time, and because they were already acquitted once. They said they understand the human side of things very well, that the men are far from home.
Did they maintain the façade that India had the right to detain them?
We never discussed the ruling so as not to pour salt in the wound.
How much sleep were you getting?
We managed to sleep, but the days were long. First, distances are great. Every night, we visited the men at both their lodgings. We reached our own hotel by nightfall, where we made plans for the next day before turning in.
One of the ship guards got drunk, climbed on top of a train, and was taken away. Were you afraid it would jeopardize the plan?
I got lucky in that my phone was not working at the time. I had no internet access, and I heard about it the next day. Whether it jeopardized anything didn’t cross my mind.
Considering what the men went through, I would hardly be surprised to learn some had alcohol problems. Did they come off unstable?
Not to me. When I visited them in prison, they were like soldiers: their backs were straight, they spoke with courage, and most had retained their sense of humor. However, I’m sure their loved ones felt it. The last time, they rather supported me. For example, when I really hoped the ruling would come on Friday, but it actually came on Saturday, they consoled me. My hat off to them, they really pulled themselves together.
Let us look at the facts: it took a year to pronounce the ruling. Once done, the men were free in a week. There is a lot of room for speculation concerning a secret agreement. It has even been suggested Angela Merkel had her hand in it. Your comment?
(Laughs.) We had no agreements. You cannot have an agreement in a situation where it takes the signatures of 20 officials to validate a permit. It was the result of years of hard work. EU officials have also brought up the ship guards’ case during the EU-India summit. It was the result of common efforts, there were no secret agreements.
Where were you when the plane took off with the men?
I was at the airport. We could walk them as far as the gate. They all went through the gate, and I told them that I would not move until the plane had taken off. It was 2.30 a.m. Half the airport cheered us on as the deputy minister said he would not move either. At one point, Mats showed us our plane. I started arguing with him, saying it couldn’t be. It was 3 in the morning when we finally left.
We couldn’t go to bed yet as we still had work to do. We had letters to send to the German border guard. Our consul in Berlin went to the office at night to write a diplomatic note. It was 5 a.m. when we finally went to sleep.
The most emotional moment was when they arrived in Tallinn. I saw it on the news and could breathe a sigh of relief. It was 3 a.m. in India. After that, I slept for 12 hours straight.
Who did you thank in India?
Colleagues at the Indian foreign ministry, their embassy in Helsinki. Foreign and domestic affairs advisers. They were a great help.
What was it in the end: a misunderstanding, bad luck, a malicious state-level hostage situation?
A very difficult consular case.
What recommendation would you leave your successor in a sealed envelope had they ever to contend with the peculiarity of India?
A lot depends on personal contacts. They value hierarchy. Why was I there? Because the consul would not have had access to all those meetings. That’s just how it is in diplomatic hierarchy.
What is something a diplomat should never do in India?
One must not get agitated. A lot of the meetings were stressful; however, getting riled up is counterproductive. They have their own procedure that we sometimes find difficult to understand.
Do you know what the ship guards and their families call you? Lioness! Is that accurate?
I could not say. Mats Kuuskemaa could. We really fought to see this thing through quickly. That week might seem like a short time in Estonia, while I believe every day seemed like an eternity to the men and their loved ones.