Monday, 30 August 2010

Greek Chief Engineer sues owners for US $23 million

Greek Chief Engineer Ioannis Mylonakis, acquitted of five felony charges in a US court in May this year, has now sued Greece’s Mamidakis group and others for a whopping $23m in the US. Mylonakis claims that Mamidakis, the owners of the tanker Georgios M, sacrificed him to authorities in the US as part of a plea-bargain deal. He claims further that the owners had a deliberate policy of dumping oily water at sea and that they lied to the US about their wealth in order to get away with a smaller fine, besides hiding corporate interconnections between different entities of their group.

Mylonakis has sued the vessel and the companies, and, individually, the President of Mamidakis Kyriakos Mamidakis, Director Emmanuel Mamidakis, General Manager Prokopakis and other board members Nikolaos and Alexandros Mamidakis.

Last year, a Mamidakis group company Styga Compania Naviera, the managers of the Georgios M, had admitted in the US that it used permanently installed magic pipelines, some hidden below the floor plates of the engine room, for dumping oily water at sea. Styga struck a plea bargain, paying just a $1.25m fine and agreeing to a three year probationary inspection programme. Interestingly, Styga also agreed to assist the US in prosecuting three ex Chief Engineers as part of the deal.

“The agreed fine is disproportionately small considering the magnitude of the actual wealth of the Mamidakis defendants and Helford,” Houston lawyer George Gaitas had said. Helford is the Mamidakis group company that owns just one vessel, the Georgios M.

Mylonakis had been Chief Engineer for about three months before he was arrested in February 2009 and accused of dumping oily water off Texas. His lawyers submitted, at his trial in May this year, that he was innocent and that, in any case, ordinary due diligence by Mylonakis had not uncovered the permanent magic pipes installed below the engine room floor plates. A jury in Houston agreed with Mylonakis, acquitting him after more than a year after he was first arrested for dumping oil off Houston and Corpus Christi.

Eight crewmembers had testified at the trial saying Mylonakis ordered the magic pipe bypass; the jury found, however, that the crew made these declarations in return for promises of immunity by the US authorities. Judge Kenneth Hoyt also struck down the testimony of the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Lab’s expert chemist as “confusing and irrelevant”.

George Chalos, a defense council member had said at the time, “There was good reason that Chief Mylonakis defiantly testified in his own defense and loudly protested the charges. He was innocent. The real shame is that the vessel’s owner and operator were trying to make Mylonakis the scapegoat and blame him for acts he didn’t do, which was compounded by the government’s failure to appreciate the facts as they truly exist ... they tried to convict an innocent man.”

Now, suing the shipowners, Mylonakis says he suffered medical problems while detained in the US; his pension and health insurance expired since he was not working as a mariner and the managers refused him financial assistance for medical treatment. The owner’s say, however, that they have done enough, paying his salary, besides undergoing expenses for his maintenance and stay in the US.

Besides these relatively small claims, Mylonakis is suing for loss in personal income and some $14m in compensatory damages, besides another $7m in punitive damages. He is also demanding another $1.5m in civil penalties to the US government, presumably based on his charge that the owners misdeclared their wealth in the plea bargain arrangement. This is not an altruistic gesture, though. If successful, Mylonakis, as plaintiff, will be entitled to half the 1.5 million amount.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Somalis detained at Lakshadweep in May are pirates

The eight Somalis caught in May off the Lakshadweep islands are pirates, says the Indian Express, quoting anonymous highly placed sources in the coastal security agencies. This revelation is the first confirmation of what many suspected for a long time- that the pirates were operating much further than anybody thought- and is likely to ring alarm bells throughout the country.

The Somalis had claimed that they were fishermen when they were detained back in May, and said that they were lost without fuel or water, and had swum ashore after their mother ship sank. Officials believe, however, that these men are actually pirates and had come northward way beyond the coasts of Mauritius and Seychelles. Officials were later quoted in the media, after the May detention, as saying that there had been more than a dozen piracy incidents within 400 miles off the Lakshadweep islands.

"However, they have now been identified as pirates. Of course, they have not come to the Indian waters intentionally. They were part of a bigger group, they came by a mother ship, drifted away in two boats. They, however, have crossed the Mauritius and Seychelles coasts. From the Somali coast, they came up to here. The area of operation is quite big," said the sources quoted in the Express.

Meanwhile, the authorities announced last month that the Coast Guard is undergoing major modifications and restructuring in the Lakshadweep islands to stop infiltration and beef up coastal security. One more Coast Guard station will be set up at the Minicoy Island by October, in addition to the one already existing in the Kavaratti Island.

“The new Coast Guard station to be activated by October, will be a small station with minimum number of officers and other personnel. There will be an interceptor boat attached to the station in the initial period,” officials said in July. A Coast Guard air station has also been mooted for Minicoy; land acquisition for this is in progress. The Coast Guard wants to operate its Dornier aircraft from this station, it is learnt.

There is actually a longer term proposal to add, to the Lakshadweep islands, three new facilities - CG station Minicoy, air station at Minicoy and another CG station at Androth. A new Headquarters will be formed for this purpose. Called Coast Guard District Head Quarters 12, this will include the existing Kavaratti Coast Guard station.

Although the beefing up of coastal security has been in progress since the Mumbai attacks, the slow pace of implementation has dismayed many experts. One hopes that this new threat to the Indian coast is being taken very seriously by the coastal security apparatus, especially in view of the MStar attack in the Straits of Hormuz last week, which the authorities in the UAE have confirmed as an ‘external explosion’.


Thursday, 19 August 2010

“M.V. Sun Sea” creates storm in Canada

Is the LTTE making $20 million human trafficking on the ship?

Almost five hundred Tamil asylum seekers originally from Sri Lanka have spent three months at sea in a cramped 59-metre rust bucket that docked at a military terminal at Victoria near Vancouver BC two days ago. The M.V Sun Sea was carrying 490 refugees who claimed that they were fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka. Canadian security officials were among those that boarded the vessel on arrival; they say they are trying to determine whether anybody on the vessel is a member of the LTTE, banned in Canada as a terrorist organisation.

The impending arrival of the ship drew an angry response from many Canadians. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said he had no doubt there was illegal activity, and maybe terrorists, onboard the ship. He claims that each refugee paid $40,000 to $50,000 for the journey that started in Thailand, and that the human smugglers stood to pocket a cool 20 million dollars from the voyage: he charged the LTTE as being behind the operation. Another Liberal MP worried that the women could be forced to work in the sex trade to repay their passage, pointing out that there were 90 women and 45 children on the ship.

"We know there are human smugglers preying on these people in refugee camps," confirms Manjula Selvarajah, of the Canadian Tamil Congress. Meanwhile, almost a hundred Tamils living in Toronto have claimed that 150 of their relatives may be on the ship.

Many Canadian say that the ship is not a refugee ship but part of a criminal enterprise. They point out that she started from Thailand and not Sri Lanka, which would have been normal had she been a genuine asylum vessel. She had also undergone major modifications to make room for the passengers. Vic Toews seemed to confirm this view when he said, “The Sun Sea itself was modified in order to make this trip and maximise the number of persons and the resulting profits”. In addition to tarps, hammocks, and makeshift cramped quarters, a sanitation system had been installed for almost five hundred people. “The evidence that I’ve been provided with at this point shows that it’s a sophisticated operation that has deliberately taken advantage of our system,” he said, adding that this was not a case of “people jumping on the first cargo ship that happened to come by.” The minister confirmed that the boat followed the same route as the ‘Ocean Lady’, another vessel that reached Canada last year with 76 Tamil asylum seekers.

Canadian officials say that they have evidence that the LTTE is behind the operation; they claim that the banned outfit is trying to generate money by profits from human smuggling. After Sri Lanka and India, Canada is home to the largest Tamil community in the world.

The asylum seekers are now being medically examined and will be moved to jails in Vancouver Island and Maple Ridge. Experts suggest that many of them will end up living legally in Canada after processing; in the last two years, 90% of Tamil asylum seekers have been successful in doing so. They point out that, as a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, Canada must process all refugee claimants who manage to reach Canadian soil.

This may not convince many in Canada, who are appalled that it may cost the taxpayer about $22 million in legal fees for refugee hearings and appeals. Many want their government to ensure that criminals or terrorists do not hijack the Canadian refugee system. A protest was organised by the “Canada First Immigration Reform Committee” in Vancouver a day after the “Sun Sea” docked. Director of the Committee Paul Fromm called the Tamils migrants and said that they were making a mockery of Canadian security. He questioned why the government did not turn the vessel away before it reached Canadian waters.


Thursday, 12 August 2010

250 sq km Arctic “ice island” on the move to Canadian shipping lanes.

Petermann Glacier

It is the biggest Arctic “ice island” formed in half a century. Covering about 250 square kilometres, it is four times the size of Manhattan and half as big as the Island of Montreal. It has broken away this month from the Petermann Glacier in Northwest Greenland, the northernmost glacier in the world; the broken island is about a quarter of the parent glacier’s size.

Discovered by scientist Trudy Wohlleben from Environment Canada, the massive chunk of ice is expected to move south towards the Baffin Island and Newfoundland shipping lanes off the coast of Canada. University of Delaware scientist Andreas Muenchow says that the ice island’s thickness is more than 200 metres in some places, “half the height of the Empire State Building.”

Two years ago, a much smaller 29 sq km ice island had broken off from the same glacier, causing concern about shipping routes near Baffin Island; fortunately, that broke into smaller pieces before it could form a threat. The present one is much bigger, and was in fact predicted by scientists after they saw that a large crack had developed in the 70 km long Petermann Glacier.

The size of this ice island is indeed staggering. “The fresh water stored in this ice island could keep the Delaware or Hudson rivers flowing for more than two years,” Muenchow said. “It could also keep all U.S. public tap water flowing for 120 days.”

“In Nares Strait, the ice island will encounter real islands that are all much smaller in size,” he added. “The newly-born ice island may become land-fast, block the channel, or it may break into smaller pieces as it is propelled south by the prevailing ocean currents. From there, it will likely follow along the coasts of Baffin Island and Labrador, to reach the Atlantic within the next two years.”

An ice island larger than the present one was last seen in 1962, when a 400 sq km piece of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf broke away from Ellesmere Island. More recently, many Arctic ice shelves have been found broken up. Two years ago, the Ellesmere Island lost about 200 square kilometers of ice shelves, causing experts to say that global warming and other irreversible effects were in play.

The Canadian Ice Service has been on alert for possible threats to ships and oil exploration activity. The year 2005 saw a 66-square-kilometre part of the Ayles Ice Shelf headed towards the busy Beaufort Sea; it fortunately went down a dead end channel without threatening shipping lanes.

So, where will this one eventually go? Scientists say that chances are that the majority of the ice island will remain inside its fjord and ice up during the annual freeze up. However, many smaller icebergs are likely to break off from it; some will likely move into the Nares Strait and from there be carried along into the northern part of Baffin Bay, where they may well threaten shipping and oil exploration activity in future.


Monday, 2 August 2010

New expedition to raise the Titanic ‘virtually’

The bow of the Titanic at rest on the bottom of the North Atlantic, about 400 miles southeast of Newfoundland. pic AP

In a challenging deep-sea expedition to the floor of the Atlantic, a “dream team” of scientists, maritime archaeologists and oceanographers will virtually raise the Titanic by making the first detailed 3D map of the famous wreck. A three-week mission will see the team probing a three square mile area two and a half miles beneath the ocean using modern submersible robots, advanced imaging equipment and high definition cameras; the first such attempt since the Titanic wreck discovery in 1985.

The expedition, organised by RMS Titanic Inc, which has exclusive salvage rights to the wreck, will leave St. John's, Newfoundland on Aug. 18 in partnership with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. The organisers say that they will not collect any artefacts out of the hundreds of thousands scattered on the ocean floor, but will instead build an interactive "video map" of the wreck that will be available to the public online. "We are raising the Titanic in a virtual sense. The pay-off is to let people explore and experience the Titanic on their own," said David Gallo, Director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts. "It's also to gain information of archaeological importance from maybe hundreds of thousands of artefacts on the seabed. Every one is a bit of evidence of how the ship sank."

Scientists will also try to determine how quickly the Titanic is disintegrating. Many areas have already crumbled, and erosion is feared to have affected significant parts of the wreck. The 30-person expedition crew will use forensics technology to assess damage to the bow and the stern areas, which separated and sank a third of a mile apart; the mission is being billed as “the most advanced scientific mission to the Titanic” by many observers. Says Gallo, "For the first time, we're really going to treat it as an archaeological site with two things in mind. One is to preserve the legacy of the ship by enhancing the story of the Titanic itself. The second part is to really understand what the state of the ship is."

Experts say that the Titanic wreck has been subjected to ‘fierce deep-ocean currents, salt water and intense pressure’ that will make the expedition’s job even more challenging; in addition, the artefacts are scattered and are lying in nearly a century’s worth of sediment. Gallo is well aware of this. "We're actually treating it like a crime scene," he told reporters.

The lead vessel, the RV Jean Charcot will control three submersibles and the latest sonar, acoustic and filming technology. Images will be compared to the original ones taken 25 years ago, when the wreck was first discovered, to measure the effects of erosion.

"Never before have we had the scientific and technological means to discover so much of an expedition to Titanic," said P.H. Nargeolet, the veteran diver with more than 30 dives to the Titanic to his credit. "We're going to see things we haven't seen before. Technology has really evolved in the last 25 years."

RMS Titanic’s last expedition to the site was in 2004, after which it has been conducting travelling displays of the Titanic artefacts, which they say have been viewed by “tens of millions of people worldwide”.