The International Group of P&I clubs has warned that seafarers could face prison terms of up to 25 years under a new Venezuelan drug law if drugs are found aboard their vessels, even if the mariners are not otherwise directly responsible or linked with them. The maritime community is believed to have raised concerns with Venezuela’s IMO representative that the law would result in innocent seafarers being detained, prosecuted and convicted if drug smugglers target their vessels without their knowledge.
Almost coincidentally with the International Group’s caution comes the news that the two Ukrainian crewmembers of the B Atlantic vessel, sentenced to nine years by courts in Venezuela last August after being detained there since 2007, have flown out from Caracas to serve out their nine year sentence in the Ukraine. The country’s ‘Kyiv Post’ reports that deal was struck between the Presidents of the two countries at a recent meeting; The B Atlantic Captain and Second Officer were detained and sentenced in Venezuela after cocaine was found attached to the vessel’s hull.
The new ‘Organic Drugs Law,’ passed in October last year in Venezuela, is seen as draconian by many. The ODL repealed earlier laws and, the Group warns, has increased the burden and potential penalties for ship-owners and crews. “The International Group has become increasingly concerned with what appears to be the indiscriminate and disproportionate application of criminal law in Venezuela in cases where vessels have been targeted by drug smugglers for the carriage of illegal narcotics”, it says. “It has become the usual practice of the Venezuelan authorities to charge the crew of a vessel on which drugs have been found with concealment and trafficking of narcotics”.
The not uncommon practice of hiding drugs by attaching them to the vessel’s hull or placing them inside cavities in the rudder stock in certain South American countries is well known. The new ODL law is unfair because makes the crew and ship-owner liable even if they are unaware of this illegal act. “Prosecutions under the previous narcotics legislation have resulted in a number of cases of seafarers being convicted and sentenced to substantial prison terms of 8-9 years without any obvious link being established between the activities of the crew and the presence of the drugs on board the vessel. Vessels and their cargo have also been confiscated by the courts. In other cases crews and vessels have been released without members of the crew being prosecuted but only after substantial periods of detention, the Group says, pointing out that the Venezuelan authorities ignore co-operative crews, since “the mere presence of drugs onboard a vessel has, in the great majority of cases, resulted in the detention of the vessel and crew and charges being brought against individual crewmembers”. The onerous law makes even an innocent seafarer liable to be jailed for anything between 15 and 25 years.
To add insult to injury, the Group points out that under the new ODL, if, within one year after the preventive seizure of the vessel, an owner has not entered an appearance or there is evidence that he has abandoned the vessel, the Prosecutor may apply for the vessel to be confiscated by the Venezuelan State. The law even makes local judges and prosecutors, if held to have not properly applied the new legislation, liable to imprisonment for 4 to 8 years!