September 22, 2003

Oil smugglers may lose vessels
Vessels used in smuggling oil from Iraq face forfeiture. Many of those involved in the smuggling are believed to have been involved in sanctions busting by the Saddam Hussein regime. Now the ships being used are likely to be forfeited under provisions similar to U.S. counter-drug, immigration and customs forfeiture procedures that allow a federal agency to take property used in criminal activity.

A Navy News Service story by Journalist 2nd Class Denny Lester, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/Commander, U.S. 5th Fleet Public Affairs, reports that last week, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (COMUSNAVCENT), in conjunction with the Coalition Provisional Authority and Commander, Joint Task Force 7, escorted an Iraqi judge to the vessels being held in Iraqi territorial waters under suspicion of smuggling Iraqi oil.

The Al Basrah Investigating Judge visited the detained vessels to adjudicate the smuggling cases.

"I am very thankful to coalition forces for trying to help the Iraqi people re-establish the Iraqi judicial system," the judge said. "They are trying to support and help the Iraqi people, and to protect Iraqi ports from all the vessels that are trying to smuggle illegal fuel out of the country. I am hoping this will be fixed and will help us a lot in trying to avoid this in the future."

The judge was acting under a new confiscation order issued Aug. 31 by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

The order has given Iraq's new government the right to investigate smuggling cases. If there is enough evidence, the new government will have the right to seize the vessels involved. In addition, the oil on board will be transferred back to Iraq and sold lawfully.

Vessel crew members will be allowed to return home as long as no criminal charges are filed against them.

"You may or may not be prosecuted for your crime," said Cmdr. Catherine Knowles, COMUSNAVCENT/Commander, U.S. 5th Fleet Deputy Force Judge Advocate General, "but at least the property will no longer be used. The issue here is to decide the fate of oil tankers and some smaller vessels that have been taking oil out of Iraq illegally."

Coalition naval forces have conducted maritime intercept operations (MIO) in the Arabian Gulf since 1990. Prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, MIO was focused on enforcing United Nations sanctions against Iraq. More recently, those intercept operations have been focused on stemming the flow of contraband goods, including smuggled Iraqi oil.

Coalition ships query every ship operating in Iraqi territorial waters in the North Arabian Gulf. Over the last few weeks, naval forces have stopped several ships carrying oil without proper authorization from the Iraqi Oil Ministry.

It will be up to the future government of Iraq to determine how to deal with smugglers, but for now, coalition forces are giving the people of Iraq the ability to address the immediate crisis. Using the resources of HMAS Newcastle (FFG 06), HMS Sutherland (F 81), USS Fletcher (DD 992), USS Rodney M. Davis (FFG 60), USS Firebolt (PC 10) and members of U.S. Coast Guard Tactical Law Enforcement Detachment South, the judge was able to conduct administrative hearings on six vessels in less than 48 hours.

"I think this is one thing that shows the coalition forces are working alongside Iraqi officials, Iraqi ministries and police to make this happen," said Yeoman 2nd Class (SW) Tarek Shoukri, liaison and linguist for Destroyer Squadron 50. "The judge and his assistant are very happy with what they are doing. They want to use the Iraqi court system and enforce Iraqi law, and show the people that they are not just sitting back and letting coalition forces do everything themselves. They want everyone to know that they are hammering down on people trying to smuggle oil outside of Iraq."

"I was very impressed with the judge, and I was very impressed with his findings and what he said. In most of his findings, he found the vessels had been transporting illegal oil and agreed they should be detained," Shoukri added.

Once the judge is provided the translated operational reports from the hearings, he will issue an order for the vessels to be brought into port. At that point, the crews and the oil will be offloaded. Depending on the type of vessel, it will either be converted for use by the Iraqi government or sold at auction.

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