FEBRUARY 25, 2014 — A U.S. maritime union is protesting the Indian government's treatment of the 35 crew and security guards who were aboard the Seaman Guard Ohio which was seized October 12, 2013.
The Seaman Guard Ohio is used by U.S.-based maritime security firm AdvanFort International as an accommodation platform for counter-piracy guards between transits on commercial vessels transiting the High Risk Area in the Indian Ocean.
The International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MMP) reports that the Seaman Guard personnel say they are being subjected to inhumane conditions in a Chennai prison where they are deprived of proper medical treatment, bathing facilities and adequate food. Following their arrests for allegedly, illegally carrying weapons and straying into domestic waters, the men have been denied bail three times by the court.
In court documents, the captain of the MV Seaman Guard Ohio says he was duped into leaving international waters by Indian Coast Guard officials who warned that the ship was in danger due to an impending cyclone. Once inside Indian territory the ship was no longer protected by the international laws, therefore, having the weapons aboard the vessel, without proper documents, violated Indian law.
MM&P is the largest organization to join the mounting international outcry for justice for the detainees. MM&P's members include Captain Richard Phillips, whose at-sea piracy hostage drama is portrayed in the Academy Award nominated film "Captain Phillips," featuring actor Tom Hanks.
MM&P says that the crew of the MV Seaman Guard Ohio havejust filed a new bail application in hopes it will be heard in an Indian courtroom, later this month. The bail application details the brutal treatment of the prisoners, including their deteriorating health due to malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, mental harassment and emotional trauma, which they have endured since their arrests more than four months ago.
"This is an outrage — a violation of every civilized standard," says Captain James Staples, an MM&P senior advisor and spokesperson. "The circumstances surrounding the arrests is suspect and the manner in which authorities are treating the crew is disconcerting." He continues, "For example, the men were imprisoned for two months before they were formally charged."
Captain Staples says, "The harsh tactics may likely stem from the Indian Coast Guard's and Navy's disdain for the presence of foreign forces and private security patrols off the country's coastlines because it conveys a message that the government is unable to defeat the pirates — which is an accurate picture."
Captain Staples is amongst the world's leading anti-piracy and ship security training experts and a maritime regulations scholar who teaches an array of courses at MM&P's Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies in suburban Baltimore. MM&P members are all collegiate-level graduates of U.S. merchant marine academies. Thousands MM&P members command cargo ships, fuel tankers and other deep-water vessels around the globe. Captain James Staples was a classmate of Captain Richard Phillips at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
The commanders and crew of the Seaman Guard Ohio are not MM&P members.
According to court documents, on October 12, 2013, an Indian Coast Guard cutter intercepted the Seaman Guard Ohio after it allegedly, unlawfully obtained 10 barrels of diesel fuel in, what the government contends, was a clandestine manner. Indian authorities say the fuel was loaded on a fishing boat and taken out to sea to the Seaman Guard Ohio.
According to published news reports, AdvanFort president William Watson says, "The Indian Coast Guard approached the ship and asked it to follow a cutter to the port. We would never have entered Indian waters otherwise."
In court documents, the Seaman Guard Ohio's Captain Dudinik Valentyn claims the anti-piracy vessel was "lured into the port by treachery." The ship was 19 nautical miles off the Indian coast, beyond territorial jurisdiction. He adds, "The vessel was asked to come to the port and take shelter to escape from cyclonic weather conditions in the Bay of Bengal."
Once in the port, 25 officials from eight different law enforcement agencies converged on the vessel; confined all crew members and guards; and falsely claimed that the ship was intercepted, according to AdvanFort.
Police seized 35 automatic weapons and nearly 5,700 rounds of ammunition from the security guards on the ship.
Captain Staples says, "Arresting the crew and guards is unprecedented. Typically, only the captain is held responsible for improper documentation."