Saturday, 13 December 2008

Industry sickened as prosecutors demand 3 year jail terms for Hebei Duo

Mumbai, November 12: The shipping industry was shocked today at the continuing victimisation of Capt. Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan at the hand of the South Korean judicial system; it was learnt that Korean prosecutors have demanded a three year prison sentence for the two officers of the ill fated ‘Hebei Spirit’, in addition to a fine of 30M won (about $22,000). The Daejon District Court is scheduled to give its verdict on appeal in December, six months after the two were found innocent by a lower court.

The prosecutors allege that the Hebei Spirit did not do enough to contain the oil spill after the collision with a Samsung barge almost a year ago; about 10000 tonnes of oil leaked into the sea when the barge collided into the Spirit, at anchor, after the tow rope parted in rough weather. The prosecutors now claim that the oil spill could have been restricted to just 1437 kilolitres, a claim that V Ships, the managers of the Hebei Spirit call ‘ridiculous’. A spokesman for the company told Fairplay that oil was gushing out of three tanks and that there was nothing that the crew could do about it immediately. “Their top priority was to ensure seafarer safety and check further damage and they succeeded in that”, he said.

The initial trial of the two officers in the lower court had found the Hebei Duo innocent in June and sentenced the two tug Masters involved in towing the barge to jail terms. There had been an international outcry against the continued detention of both the Indian officers of the Hebei Spirit in South Korea at the time.

There was consternation for awhile in Indian shipping circles as a premier shipping magazine erroneously reported that Capt. Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan had been sentenced to jail terms. That report has now been corrected by the magazine. Although prosecutors have demanded jail terms, the verdict is expected to be delivered next month.

Meanwhile, the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Shipping Federation said last week that they have expressed serious concern at the IMO Legal Committee at the continued detainment in Korea of the two officers. The two organisations have reportedly pointed out that this was despite assurances then given by the managers and the two officers that they would return to attend further hearings in Korea. The ICS/ISF have also claimed that Korea is behaving contrary to the principles established by the Joint IMO/ ILO Guidelines on the Fair Treatment of Seafarers in the Event of a Maritime Accident. “The industry is disappointed that this incident creates the impression that Korea does not respect the principles agreed by IMO and ILO. It is hoped that the Government of Korea will now do all in its power to ensure that the seafarers are permitted to return to their homes and families immediately,” they said.

Industry watchers are dismayed at the intransigence displayed by South Korea thus far. They indicate to possible collusion between Samsung, a mammoth and powerful conglomerate, and others in Korea in this case, and are convinced that the two innocent officers are just convenient scapegoats. Many senior officials and analysts agree with this assessment off the record.

The Nautical Institute had, in April this year, "highly recommended" Capt J.S. Chawla during its Ship Master of the Year 2007 award deliberations. Paradoxically, in an earlier interview with Lloyd's List, Capt. Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan had admitted to feeling, ever since the incident, "anger, fear, depression and frustration" in the aftermath to the incident. Capt. Chawla was also quoted at the time as saying that he never wanted to see a ship again.

One senior Shipmaster told Marex today, “We should forget appealing any longer to the Korean authorities; they are not listening. Unless the Government of India and the Indian shipping fraternity take more much aggressive action right now against this shabby injustice, many more seafarers will kiss the industry goodbye. ”


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