Iranian attempts to circumvent Western sanctions against their country- and the present economic crisis- are both combining to hit seafarers in many unintended but inevitable ways. Caught in the crossfire in an economic war over which they have no control, innocent seamen are living with threats and terrible living conditions.
Reuters broke the story of the eight Indian crewmen aboard the Iranian freighter ‘MV Amina’ earlier this month. They had just returned home to India after a harrowing time aboard the Amina at Colombo, where they were forced to go against the Captain’s orders- and threats- to stop the ship from sailing.
Iran has alleged to have created many dummy companies with ships registered across the world in an attempt to circumvent US sanctions and a EU ban on insurance for Iranian ships. The Amina was taken over by Germany's DVB Bank for defaulting on a loan in Colombo where she had stopped to pick up armed guards before she was to proceed to pirate affected areas. It is believed that the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) owes the bank a total of nearly 50 million dollars, and other IRISL ships have been similarly detained.
Post the formal arrest of the ship, the crew’s documents were seized and taken ashore, a fact that the Captain initially hid from the crew. Worse, the Iranian crewmen aboard the Amina were ordered to try out the engines, making the Indians suspicious that the ship was about to break arrest and sail surreptitiously into international waters from the anchorage. The Captain subsequently ignored Indian protests and ordered that the anchor be weighed; they, in turn, threatened to drop the second anchor and stop the ship.
Although the ship did not sail then, the Indian crew were scared that if it eventually did and sailed to Iran, they could face arrest or worse. There fears were not unfounded; the Captain had ‘taunted’ them, according to an Indian crewmember, saying that “if you fall in the water I will give a report that says that you tried to commit suicide”.
"We had a lifeboat on standby and were ready to escape if required. We slept with our life jackets with the hope that if the ship did leave for Iran we would jump off and try to get the attention of some fishing boat," the crewmember said.
Said another crewmember Harpreet Singh Sahota, "We weren't able to sleep at night. We felt paranoid and threatened all the time. We were desperate to get off the ship."
The fearful Indians moved around the ship in groups of three for protection, making frantic calls home, asking their families to get the Indian government to intervene. Eventually, after the story broke in the Indian media, the Sri Lankan authorities- probably under some diplomatic pressure from India- took the Indian crew ashore, returned their documents and allowed them to come home.
Prior to this incident, the Amina had been without cargo for months; the previous Filipino crew is reported to have had a standoff with the same Captain over unpaid wages. Even after this incident, the Amina tried to break free and was fired on by the Sri Lankan navy. She would eventually make a getaway a few days later in rough weather, and sail to Bandar Abbas, in Iran.
The Indians told Reuters that the food was also the worst they'd ever eaten aboard a ship. Said one, "Even the Iranian crew didn't like the food and they prayed that they would reach Iran safely without dying of hunger along the way," one said.