Mumbai, January 16: Capt. Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan of the Hebei Spirit have finally walked out of prison on bail in South Korea yesterday. The Government of India hailed their release. "The Government of India welcomes this decision," External Affairs Ministry representative Vishnu Prakash said in a statement in New Delhi yesterday. The GOI now hopes for an expeditious hearing on the Hebei Two’s appeal against their conviction, even as it “continues to pursue the matter with the Government of the Republic of Korea in the backdrop of close and cordial relations that exist between the two countries."
Reports from the Korea Times newspapers and Lloyd’s List confirm that Chawla and Chetan, sentenced and imprisoned last month, have posted bail of Won10,000 ($7,500) each. According to the terms of the court, the two must stay in Seoul and cannot leave Korea without the Supreme Court’s permission. Captain Chawla told Lloyd’s List he was “very pleased” and thanked everybody for their help, but declined to comment further.
The grant of bail for the two officers comes after a concerted industrywide global campaign against the treatment of the two officers in the Hebei Spirit case. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) had earlier announced that a rally would be held in London on 23 January in support of the Capt. Chawla and Mr. Chetan. The protest, which was to bring together organisations such as shipowners’ and managers’ associations Intertanko and Intercargo, the International Maritime Employers’ Committee (IMEC) and Indian trade unions, has now been reportedly called off. A statement from the organisers says “a postponement of the planned action will create a better environment for a successful resolution to this long running saga”.
National Union of Seafarers of India general secretary Abdulgani Serang had earlier announced that there would be a call for a boycott of ships calling at South Korean ports commencing February 1 if the two mariners were not released on bail. Serang had said at the time that the boycott would cover both Indian and foreign flag vessels and would be coordinated by a coalition of Indian Unions, including the Maritime Union of India and Merchant Naval Officers’ Associations. A call had also been made for a public boycott of South Korean products in India, particularly products made by Samsung, the owners of the out of control barge that collided with the ‘Spirit’ at anchor, causing the worst pollution in South Korean history. Mr. Serang had said that the union “respected South Korea’s judicial system” but felt there was no other alternative to such action. Protests against the imprisonment of the two officers, widely regarded as innocent, have intensified in India in recent weeks, with demonstrations held across the country demanding their release on bail pending judicial process in South Korea.
Welcoming the Korean Supreme Court decision, the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Shipping Federation said yesterday that the legal process in Korea had fuelled the shipping industry’s deep concern about the criminalisation of seafarers. Other international industry bodies and V.Ships, the managers of the Hebei Spirit, have also welcomed the latest developments.
The ITF had called the imprisonment economically and politically motivated. In recent days, at least one prominent Korean newspaper has covered the story, giving space to criticism of the South Korean position, quoting experts as saying that the two men and their tankers were ‘passive victims', noting that their ship was sitting at anchor and that it leaked oil only after being rammed by a barge owned by Samsung Heavy Industries. The ITF’s criticisms were quoted in The Korea Times as well. The ITF, a group of 654 unions representing 4.5 million maritime and transport workers in 148 countries, had publicly criticised the verdict, saying `This is not justice. It is not even something close. What we have seen is scapegoating, criminalisation and a refusal to consider the wider body of evidence that calls into question the propriety of the court.''
The shipping industry has expressed support for the Hebei Two ever since December 2007, when a Samsung crane that had broken its tow ropes hit the Spirit and ruptured some tanks. The fact that the First Court had found Capt. Chawla and Mr. Chetan innocent was welcomed in the summer of 2008. However, the refusal of the Korean authorities to allow them to come home pending the appeals process, and the fact that a higher court found the two ‘guilty’ and sentenced them to jail terms, has enraged the international community anew. The ITF saw their conviction and imprisonment “as being everything to do with assuaging Korean public opinion (the men were paraded outside the court in handcuffs), and with helping the owner of the crane barge, Samsung, to reduce its exposure to paying for clean up”.
The release of the two officers from the Cheongju Detention Center should come as a huge relief to them and their families. Experts warn, however, that the Hebei Two are not out of the woods yet, as their status in South Korea is now that of convicted and bailed criminals awaiting appeal who cannot leave the country. This process may take until June. Nevertheless, the signs that South Korea is finally reacting to international disapproval are heartening. At last, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel for Capt. Chawla and Mr. Chetan.