But are they innocent?
Two Ukrainian officers of the cargo vessel, the “B Atlantic”, have been sentenced to nine years in prison in Venezuela for drug trafficking. Captain Volodymyr Ustymenko and Mate Yuriy Datchenko have already spent two years in Venezuela after 128 kgs of cocaine was discovered welded on to the hull of the vessel in 2007. The August 13 ruling has dismayed many observers. Their lawyer Aurelio Fernandez says that they would have been acquitted in any other country, and the convictions are “purely political.”
Worse, The Komsomolskaya Pravda v Ukraine newspaper reports that the two officers could be sent to the island of Margarita, one of the world's worst prison colonies. "This place is infamous, and few people have managed to return from there," the newspaper says. It is believed that diplomatic pressure is being put by Ukraine on Venezuela, although the two countries have limited relations.
The two officers were arrested while on the 38,056-dwt bulker B Atlantic on August 12, 2007, when Venezuelan divers found 128 kg of cocaine clamped to the ship’s hull while it was moored in Lake Maracaibo. Capt. Ustymenko had told Lloyd’s List later that he was completely innocent. Their delayed trial saw the Ukrainian President and the Foreign Minister sending letters to Venezuela asking that it conduct the trial of the two Ukrainians under proper conditions.
Observers say that the two seem to be caught in a political game being played by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Capt. Ustymenko had indicated that much when he spoke last year, after spending 18 months in detention in an apartment in Venezuela, “I think it is for political reasons. Why should we stay here for so much time? Because the Venezuelan government wants to react about narcotic trafficking. We are not involved in this. How can we be, because these drugs were found about 10 m underwater near the propeller? That is why the crew and my security officer were not involved in this situation. We are innocent.”
Analysts saw that drug smugglers in Venezuela use a technique that was popular in Colombia until underwater inspections became compulsory for all ships leaving the bigger ports in that country. It is a travesty of justice, they claim, that crews and ships are seized in Venezuela if drugs are found welded on to the vessel. The seizure of the B Atlantic is not a unique case. Two years ago, the tanker Astro Saturn had been similarly detained. Two Greek officers were arrested from that vessel after cocaine was found attached to the hull of the ship in Puerto La Cruz in November 2008. Fernandes says, “Any owner that travels to Lake Maracaibo or Venezuela in general, and has the bad luck to have one of these criminal organisations attach a drug device underwater, is at risk of losing the vessel and crew.”
B Navi, the managers of the B Atlantic, had decided after the incident to stop operating in Venezuela. The Italian owners of the B Atlantic estimated the loss of millions of dollars of lost earnings, besides huge losses in the value of the vessel as she is effectively laid up and her condition has deteriorated.
Capt. Ustymenko’s daughter has been fighting a lonely battle on her father’s behalf back in the Ukraine. She had said last year that despite writing to the President of the Ukraine and to human rights organisations, “we don’t get any answer. They just say that the matter is under consideration.
She added, at the time, that her father was innocent. “He has been a sailor for 35 years, 24 years as a master. He has worked all his life as a sailor. He is not a drug dealer”.