JULY 9, 2013 — Sweden's Stena Oil says that the West African republic of São Tomé e Príncipe has wrongfully confiscated two ships it had chartered including the cargo. The captains have been severely sentenced to three years of imprisonment and charged with "smuggling" in a show trial. A fine of 5 million EUR has been imposed, and the vessels and cargo have been confiscated by the state.
Stena Oil says its clear and firm position that the allegations are entirely unfounded. Neither the shipowners nor Stena Oil have been given the opportunity by any court to clear the false allegations against them. The São Tomé court has refused to consider evidence that would clearly prove the innocence of all the accused parties, including the captains who have now been imprisoned. After nearly four months, the situation remains unresolved and has thus far cost Stena Oil and the owners of the ships more than $3 million.
"For nearly four months, the ships and their cargo have been wrongfully detained by the São Tomé authorities. The captains have been imprisoned for a crime they did not commit. They are the victims of an unscrupulous government trying to enrich themselves by confiscating assets from foreign businesses," says Stena.
"The situation started on March 15 when two ships chartered by Stena Oil were to transfer some equipment and cargo off the coast of São Tomé between themselves," says Stena. "Due to the conditions at sea, the captains made the decision to seek shelter closer to shore, within São Tomé territorial waters. It was simply a matter of safety for the vessels, crew and environment. The coast guard of São Tomé appeared before any transfer had been commenced and records of the radio traffic show that they did not disapprove of the vessels' presence there. Yet both vessels were later boarded and made to move to port, where the captains were forcefully taken ashore for questioning. Vessel documents and crew passports were seized.
"Despite substantial effort on the part of Stena Oil, the São Tomé authorities refused to explain why they had detained the ships, or on what charges. Five days later, the captains were accused of illegal entry into territorial waters and smuggling. These accusations are unfounded and absurd, as the intended transfer was from one ship chartered by Stena Oil to another. After a perfunctory trial, in which the accused captains were not allowed to present evidence of their innocence, the judgment was passed two weeks later. The captains were to be imprisoned, the ships and cargo confiscated by the State of São Tomé and finally, a fine of 5 million EUR was imposed, to be paid jointly by the two captains, the vessel owners and Stena Oil. The sentence is so abusive and grossly disproportionate that we can only surmise that there are strong ulterior political motives which have prejudiced the local justice system.
"We have now learned that the São Tomé authorities intend to repatriate the crews of the ships and leave the vessels where they currently reside off shore São Tomé. We strenuously disapprove of this measure, as the consequences of a fully loaded petroleum tanker caught close to shore in bad weather with less than a minimum safety crew may very well prove to become a major ecological disaster. We have of course strongly protested the situation, but the São Tomé authorities have ignored our recommendations.
"It is imperative that these actions by the government of São Tomé must cease now. Stena Oil has extended every due courtesy to the São Tomé authorities and patiently engaged in discussions with their representatives in order to resolve the situation. We have requested that São Tomé apply relevant national and international maritime law in handling the situation, and we have worked tirelessly for an amicable and reasonable solution. However, to date our efforts have proven fruitless. The measures taken by the São Tomé authorities place them in clear violation of their obligations under international laws such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Unless the crew (including the two captains), vessels and cargo are immediately released, we will call São Tomé before the International Tribunal to answer for their deeds.
"Neither Stena Oil, the vessels nor their owners and crew have been involved in any of the illegal actions alleged by São Tomé, including smuggling. In a region where international shipping is suffering daily from the threat of piracy, São Tomé has now introduced a new threat: de facto piracy by a sovereign state in the form of illegal confiscation of ships and cargo. Therefore, we are sharing this information with the international community as a warning for those who are doing business in or near the republic of São Tomé e Príncipe.
"Stena is a Swedish company formed in 1939. As one of the largest and most respected privately held corporations in Sweden, Stena's activities range from property, recycling, and offshore oil drilling to shipping just to mention a few business areas. Stena is a global company that enjoys very high reputation in all business segments where we are active. Stena Oil has been active in the distribution of marine fuels for more than 30 years."