Six Seafarers Witnesses in a MARPOL Case are “Stuck” in San Diego
In a rather odd set of circumstances, the United States has six foreign seafarers living in San Diego unable to go home because they as material witnesses in a maritime pollution case. None of the seafarers are charged with any crimes but they have had to remain in San Diego for the past seven months waiting to give testimony in a case involving the tanker they were working aboard. The chief engineer of the tanker was recently indicted on charges of illegally dumping an oily discharge and attempting to cover up the incidents when the U.S. Coast Guard began investigating.
A federal judge this week in San Diego denied a notion that called for the five seafarers from the Philippines and the master from Ukraine to give their deposition under oath so that they could leave the country and not wait for the trial sometime in 2023. Typically, they would give their testimony and be ordered to return for the trial. Lawyers for the defense had said they would be willing to depose the seafarers but that it would be later because they first have to review the evidence in the case. However, according to the federal magistrate, they can not give depositions because they are not officially detained by the court.
The case began last May when they were working aboard a product tanker named Donald registered in the Marshall Islands. Equasis reports the vessel’s owners are in Singapore and it is managed by Trafigura Maritime Logistics. The 37,296 dwt vessel arrived in San Diego in May and the U.S. Coast Guard boarded the ship to investigate charges of the MARPOL offenses.
According to the local news reports, the owners of the vessel posted a $1.1 million bond for the release of the vessel. As part of their agreement with the U.S. authorities, they are paying for the six individuals and the chief engineer to stay in San Diego hotel rooms and continue to pay their salary. Under U.S. law, foreigners who are material witnesses need to remain in the country. The court has ordered the six individuals to remain in California and is holding their passports.
The six petitioned the court in November and received the court’s decision earlier this week. The chief engineer, a Russian citizen named Denys Korotkiy, was officially indicted in November. He is facing four charges, three counts of obstruction of justice, and one count of failing to keep an accurate oil book.
The seafarers reportedly have now rented a house in the San Diego area. They sit and wait for the chief engineer’s case to proceed or for him to reach a plea deal with prosecutors. For their part, the prosecutors argued to the court that live testimony would be better than depositions from the witnesses and promised to expedite the case.