Saturday, 13 December 2008

S. Korean jail terms for ‘Hebei Spirit’s’ Captain Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan

“Incomprehensibly vindictive”, says ITF

Mumbai 11 December: The international shipping community reacted with rage, disgust and dismay after a South Korean court jailed Capt. Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan of the ill fated Hebei Spirit on Wednesday. The two officers of the tanker involved in an oil spill in South Korea in December 2007 were convicted of criminal negligence and violating anti pollution laws by the Daejeon District Court, which overturned a lower court’s ‘not guilty’ ruling.

The court jailed Capt Chawla for 18 months and fined him Won20million (US$ 14000) after finding him guilty on two charges related to the oil spill. The court said Capt Chawla should have gone ‘full astern’ to drag anchor to prevent the collision with the drifting crane barge Samsung No 1 that had earlier broken its tow.

Mr. Chetan was sentenced to eight months in prison and fined Won10m (US$ 7000). The court said that Mr. Chetan should have been more vigilant and called the master by 0550 hours. They also criticised Chetan for pumping inert gas into the cargo tanks and taking too long to transfer oil. The owner of the tanker, Hebei Spirit Shipping Co., was fined 30 million won (US$21000), the maximum allowed under South Korea's pollution laws.

The court said that the ship failed to take sufficient measures to limit the spill. The use of inert gas was also criticised, the court saying that this had increased the spillage of oil when the explosive risk was low. In addition, the ruling stated that the crew of the tanker should have ballasted to create a ten degree list to decrease the oil spill, and that the time taken to transfer the oil was ‘too long’.
Reacting angrily to the verdict, ITF maritime coordinator Mr. Stephen Cotton went on record to say, “This is not justice. It’s not even something close. What we have seen today is scapegoating, criminalisation and a refusal to consider the wider body of evidence that calls into question the propriety of the court. This decision is incomprehensibly vindictive and will impact on all professional mariners”.

Speaking to Lloyds List, NUSI general secretary Abdulgani Serang angrily said, “We are furious. We condemn this decision. It is unfair and unjust. There is a strong possibility Indian seafarers will not sail on ships to South Korea. The seafaring and shipping communities are deeply disturbed. Reactions are bound to follow.”

Office bearers of NUSI, FOSMA, INSA, MASSA and MUI are expected to attend a meeting on the weekend to decide on the Indian maritime community’s future course of action.

In a further slap in the face of world opinion, the appeal court simultaneously reduced the prison sentences of the two tug captains involved in the accident. One of them is now sentenced to two and a half years instead of the original three, while the other one will spend just eight months in prison instead of the original sentence of one year.

Bob Bishop, the CEO of V.Ships, the manager of the Hebei Spirit, lambasted the verdict, "This will surely go down as one of the most disgraceful examples of a miscarriage of justice in a supposedly advanced nation state. For Captain Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan to be sentenced to prison terms and led from the court in handcuffs is a disgrace and insult to the whole shipping industry." VShips will appeal to the South Korean Supreme Court as soon as possible.

The accident occurred a year ago after the ‘Samsung No 1’ broke its tow and collided with the fully loaded Hebei Spirit’ at anchor. Three tanks ruptured on the tanker and more than 10000 tonnes of oil caused South Korea’s worst environmental disaster. (See Box)

Indian media and Lloyd’s list have reported that representatives of Samsung Heavy Industries visited some crewmember’s homes in India and China earlier this year, promising them jobs abroad and leaving them gifts as ‘souvenirs’ in return for testifying in South Korea.

Many international industry bodies made angry statements condemning the South Korean ruling yesterday. InterManager general secretary Morel has called the ruling unacceptable. He said, “They (two officers) have behaved professionally throughout this sorry affair and are being made scapegoats by South Korea. We believe that the evidence against them was flawed and manipulated and we will campaign vigorously on their behalf to overturn this unfair decision.”

InterTanko, which had earlier sent a letter to South Korean President Lee Myung Bak urging that the Daesan Court of Appeal ‘carefully consider’ all evidence, expressed its anguish at the verdict. “Intertanko expresses disappointment with the Korean authorities given all the efforts of owners, managers and the industry in general which seem to have fallen on deaf ears,” said Peter Swift managing director of Intertanko.

BIMCO has voiced its concerns too, and the Singapore Shipping Association and the Asian Shipowners Forum have echoed this sentiment, calling it “a clear violation of the principle set forth in the IMO guidelines on the Fair Treatment of Seafarers in the Event of a Maritime Accident.” The Hong Kong Shipowners’ Association added its voice of condemnation, saying, “The ever increasing criminalisation by nations from Korea to the USA, for seafarers involved in accidents – not criminal acts – must stop.”

ITF’s Cotton said that the fight would go on, “The one thing we can promise today is that this isn’t over. The campaign to free these men will go on growing until the justice that was so glaringly absent in this court today is done.”

“How can we encourage young people to take up a career in shipping when they see experienced and innocent crew criminalised in this way?” asks Mr. Morel of InterManager. Marine recruitment agencies in Mumbai agree that these latest developments will demoralise mariners further and make a career at sea even less of an attraction for new recruits. “Along with Somali piracy, this may well be the last straw on the camel’s back”, a manager told Marex on condition of anonymity.

Ironically, Capt Chawla and Mr. Chetan were sent to prison on International Human Rights Day. Bishop of V Ships called this “the final indignity”.

The saga of the ‘Hebei Spirit’

In December 2007, a crane barge owned by Samsung Heavy Industries collided with The Hebei Spirit, a VLCC at anchor and awaiting berth near the port of Daesan, South Korea. The accident happened after the barge tow rope parted; the two tugs towing the barge had been warned twice on VHF by local authorities that they was too close to the Spirit.

The collision punctured three tanks on the Spirit. Approximately 11000 tonnes of crude oil leaked into an area which is a prime tourist destination as well as an ecologically sensitive one. The cost of the cleanup, the worst in South Korean history, was estimated at 330 million US dollars.

The Captain of the Hebei Spirit, Capt. Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan, along with the two Samsung tug masters involved were charged with negligence and violating Marine Law after a preliminary Coast Guard investigation. A trial was held and concluded on 23 June this year; both tug Master's were found guilty and sentenced to jail terms. Capt. Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan were exonerated. Besides other reasons, they had taken all prudent steps to avoid the collision even when they were at anchor on a huge vessel.

Appeals to South Korea to let the seafarers return to India pending the prosecution’s appeal at a higher court failed, despite protests by national and international industry organisations including FOSMA, MASSA, MUI, NUSI, BIMCO, ITF and ILO. Representations and memoranda issued by seafarer unions, owners’ and ship management organisations to the DGS and the Korean consulate in Mumbai were rejected. Appeals made to the Prime Minister by the CMMI to intervene in the case were unsuccessful.

The Hebei Spirit's P&I club tried in vain to make the Korean authorities accept a bond that would allow the men to go home until required in Korea for the appeal. Meanwhile the two officers were prevented from leaving the country pending appeal and a possible retrial. A horde of maritime organisations and professionals of standing condemned the South Korean attitude. Concerns were also expressed by the ICS and ISF at the IMO, all to no avail.

The appeal process began in September. The December 10 ruling has now found the Indian officers partly responsible for the spill and awarded fines and prison sentences to both, while reducing the jail terms of the two Samsung tug masters.

There is clear belief in the seafaring community that the South Koreans are looking for scapegoats, protecting their own industrialists and are in clear violation of the principle set forth in the IMO guidelines on the “Fair Treatment of Seafarers in the Event of a Maritime Accident.” Indian media and Lloyd’s List have independently reported that representatives of Samsung Heavy Industries visited some crewmember’s homes in India and China earlier promising them jobs abroad and leaving them gifts as ‘souvenirs’ in return for testifying in South Korea.

Ironically, the Nautical Institute had, in April this year, "highly recommended" Capt J.S. Chawla during its Ship Master of the Year 2007 award deliberations for professionalism displayed during the Hebei Spirit accident.

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