The Madras High Court Bench has refused to suspend the five-year sentences imposed on the crew of the anti-piracy vessel Seaman Guard Ohio.
The crew consists of six British nationals, 14 Estonians, three Ukranians and 12 Indians. The sentences were imposed by the Thoothukudi Principal Sessions Court on January 11, 2016, and the High Court has also refused the conditional bail granted by the lower court ahead of an appeal against their sentences.
The judge, Justice V.S. Ravi, said he was not inclined to grant the relief in view of the grave charges leveled against the convicts, vehement objections raised by ‘Q’ branch- Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and also because 23 of the convicts happened to be foreigners.
The Sierra Leone-flagged ship owned by AdvanFort, a U.S.-based company, was intercepted by Indian Coast Guard ship Naikidevi on October 12, 2013 and escorted to Chidambaranar Port in Tuticorin. The vessel was assessed to be inside Indian Territorial Waters east off Tuticorin following an alleged tip-off that the vessel carried arms.
Judicial Magistrate I C Kathiravan had granted conditional bail after the crew argued that the Q branch had failed to file the charge sheet even after 60 days of their arrest.
On December 26, 2015, Chief Judicial Magistrate K Venkatasamy stayed the bail granted by Magistrate Kathiravan. It is reported that he held the granting of bail was flawed and that it went against orders of higher courts, including Supreme Court, referring that the incident posed a threat to national security as previously asserted by Q’ Branch CID which investigated the case.
A final appeal is scheduled to be heard on June 1, 2016, while the crew remains in jail.
Legal support in India is being provided through the ITF Union to the vessel’s crew, but apparently not to the private maritime security guards despite six British Guards being issued with Seaman’s Books as evidenced in Indian court documents.
Human Rights at Sea CEO, David Hammond, commented: “This is yet another blow to the families of the vessel’s crew and security guards, though our charity sees them as one body of seafarers caught in the Indian judicial system. We have always supported the rights of these men to lawfully challenge the facts of the case, the charges laid against them and now to appeal their sentences. We will continue to support their position alongside other key maritime organizations and charities pressing for justice and their release.”