Captain Phillips' Union Calls for Piracy Laws

Published Jun 23, 2014 7:41 PM by The Maritime Executive

The International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots stresses the June 24  Indian Court hearing for 35 detained crew members of the Seamen Guard Ohio protection patrol boat should serve as a call for action by the IMO to set standards for security ships escorting commercial vessels through pirate-infested waters.

The men were arrested by the Indian Coast Guard in October on weapons charges after their ship purportedly drifted out of international waters into domestic territory during at-sea refueling.

“Piracy is a continuing threat to world mariners,” stresses Captain James Staples, MM&P’s Senior Advisor. He is amongst the world’s foremost anti-piracy and ship security training experts. “Multi-national naval flotillas cannot protect every vessel sailing the African-Atlantic, Asian-Pacific and Indian Oceans.”

MM&P is the world’s preeminent professional merchant mariners’ union. Its best-known member is Captain Richard Phillips – name sake of the Oscar-nominated high seas piracy movie drama, starring actor Tom Hanks.

Staples explains, “The onus to ward-off pirates is reliant on privateers. These are professional soldiers, distained by many governments who know these ships are on protection details, yet, they overzealously enforce domestic gun laws because there are no international regulations that specifically address the role of these necessary armed forces.”

The 170 member-countries of the United Nations’ IMO need to define international maritime security; regulate it and globalize the criteria in the same manner shipping companies adhere to procedures recognized by the International Organization for Standardization, according to Staples.

He is a 35 year deep sea ship captain, president of OceanRiver Maritime Consultancy, who teaches an array of courses at MM&P’s Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies, in suburban Baltimore.

The Seamen Guard  Ohio is owned by U.S.-based AdvanFort maritime security corporation.

None of the officers or crew members are Americans. They are 14 Estonians, six Britons, three Ukrainians and 12 Indians. The foreign nationals were kept in Puzhal central prison, near Chennai. The Indians were lodged in the Palayamkottai jail.

Following five months of intense international media coverage, diplomatic inquiries and a 150,000 signature petition campaign imploring British Prime Minister David Cameron to intervene, 33 of the men were released on bail. They cannot leave India. They are partially confined in a Chennai hotel. They can leave the hotel but must check-in at a local police station in the morning and evening. The captain and executive officer remain imprisoned.

According to court documents, the Indian Coast Guard says it intercepted the Ohio on “suspicion.” An inspection “revealed that the vessel was carrying weapons.”

Staples says, “Of course it was carrying weapons. The Ohio is decked-out like a military vessel – painted navy grey, emblazoned with red chevrons. There was no attempt to disguise the ship as anything but what it is – an armed escort.”

According to court documents, Indian authorities confiscated 31 assault rifles and 5,000 ammunition rounds. The crew is charged with violating the Indian Arms Act because it did not receive written domestic authorization.

A case under the Essential Commodities Act was also registered for procuring 1,500 liters of diesel through local agencies in an unauthorized manner. The diesel fuel operator was also arrested.

“MM&P and professional mariners worldwide are alarmed by reports that the accused seamen have endured inhumane treatment in a maximum security penitentiary and that the court intentionally delayed due process,” says MM&P chief-of-staff Captain Klaus Luhta. “Traditionally, only a ship’s captain is arrested for a violation because he is ultimately responsible for obtaining proper documents. Throwing everyone aboard behind bars in rodent-infested, unsanitary prison cells is an outrage.”

Luhta is an American delegate to the IMO, maritime attorney specializing in criminalization of mariners and seamen’s rights and a seasoned deep ocean ship deck officer. He emphasizes, “Increasingly, we are seeing the wrongful criminalization of mariners who, in many cases, are being played as pawns in a larger international chess game that pits the powers of nations ill-equipped to combat piracy against shipping companies determined to protect their people and cargo from attacks and hijackings.”

According to The International Chamber of Commerce Commercial Crime Services Bureau, in 2014, so far, there have been upward of 101 recorded pirate attacks on merchant marine vessels around the globe. In all of 2013, there were upward of 264 pirate attacks. More than 300 people were taken hostage at sea last year and 21 were injured. Nearly all incidents involved with guns and knives. A total of 12 vessels were hijacked, 202 were boarded, 22 were fired upon and a further 28 reported attempted attacks.

Staples says, “Nigerian pirates were particularly violent -- killing one crewmember and kidnapping 36 people to hold onshore for ransom. West African piracy stems from uprisings in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta that has fostered criminal networks. Gangs target cargo and fuel and rob and kidnap crew members.”

According to MM&P, pirate attacks jumped by a third off the coast of West Africa last year, increasing insurance costs for shipping firms and transport rates for their customers. Luhta says, “The concerns about piracy are first about life and secondly about the economic ramifications, which impacts all consumers of food, fuel and manufactured items ranging from automobiles to appliances, all of which are transported by ship.”

According to a company news release, AdvanFort blames the ship's insurers for the crews’ plight. "More than seven months after Seaman Guard Ohio sailors were detained in India, the crew is now getting the cold shoulder treatment from insurers Aon, Lodestar and Travelers as they stonewall the claims of the men who used to serve their country as soldiers. AdvanFort has a comprehensive insurance package worth more than $700,000 in premiums for the 35 men for the last two years.”

The statement continues, "We hope the insurers can provide the support we need for the sake of the sailors who need food, shelter and medical help so that they can be back in the arms of their loved ones."

Even if the case is dismissed, the men may be prevented from leaving the country because of outstanding and unpaid fees and costs, including a hefty hotel bill – all of which the company contends should be paid by the insurance companies.