On October 12, 2013, the 35 crew and guards on the Seaman Guard Ohio were arrested in India’s territorial waters for possession of illegal arms and environmental pollution. Indian authorities arrested six British nationals, three Ukrainians, fourteen Estonians as well as twelve Indians after they boarded the ship.
The men were thrown in jail and ordered to stand trial for crimes against the state. While all charges were eventually dropped in July 2014 by the High Court of India, the men’s passports were confiscated so that they could not leave the country legally.
But after almost a year of detention and living in limbo, the Supreme Court of India upheld the charges and remanded the men for trial. And, on January 11, 2016, after a brief trial all of the men were sentenced to five years of hard labor, and the nightmare continues for them and their families.
Meanwhile, it appears that AdvanFort Company, the vessel’s owners, have done little to help the men. The company’s owners, Samir Farajallah, the company’s chairman and CEO, and his son, Ahmed, who acted as the president of U.S. based entity, quit paying the crew’s salaries in November 2013. They have also done little to provide legal assistance insisting that they thought it was their insurance company’s responsibility.
For the wives and families of the crew, who are grateful for every media article that keeps their loved ones in the spotlight, it has been three long, brutal years. But, unfortunately, it could be many more years before the men are released and allowed to go home.
An AdvanFort representative recently contacted some of the families to offer advice about appealing their convictions. They advised the men to request a transfer from India jurisdiction to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea on the basis that the Indian Coast Guard interfered with the ship’s right of innocent passage.
However, the advice fell flat on the legal team representing the men who say that the focus of the prosecution concerns contraventions of Indian domestic statutes relating to the carriage of arms within Indian territorial waters. Whatever the merits of the advice, AdvanFort’s long silence and lack of financial support for the men after more than three years meant very little to the families who have been suffering at the imprisonment of their sons, fathers and brothers.
The Sierra Leone-flagged Seaman Guard Ohio had more than 35 firearms, 102 magazines and 5,682 rounds of ammunition on board, and there was no paperwork for the munitions. Meanwhile, AdvanFort transferred about $40,000.00 to a ships’ agent in India to buy bunkers for the vessel. But, Indian authorities said the ship was not registered to enter territorial waters, and the money transfer was used for illicit purposes.
In March 2016, the Madras High Court Bench refused to suspend the five-year sentences that were handed down to the men in Tuticorin in January. A final appeal is scheduled to be heard on June 1, 2016, and the men remain imprisoned in an Indian jail.
While the men have toiled in a foreign country’s judicial system on charges they had no control over, the owners remain free. The crew and guards could not have known the arms carried were not registered and allowed in India. Nor did they know that the fuel bought and transferred to the ship was bought illegally. Meanwhile, the Farajallahs both have arrest warrants out for them in India.
The Mission to Seafarers got financially involved in the case just after the crew were arrested in India. The men’s hotel and food were not paid for by the company after they were release on bail.
Efforts have been made to try and contact the company, but their phones are shut down, and the website has not had anything new posted since 2014.
Samir Farajallah is said to have made significant sums from New Fields Exhibitions, which connected private companies with government officials for the rebuilding of Iraq, among other ventures. A reporter called New Fields’ Dubai phone number on March 2; the spokesman who answered confirmed the identity of the firm, but would neither confirm nor deny any continued involvement by Mr. Farajallah. The next day the New Fields website was removed from the internet.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.