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Seaman Guard Ohio crew freed

Posted on: 13 December 2017

35 men, including six British ex-servicemen (widely known as the Chennai Six), serving five-year prison sentences in India are now free. Five of the Britons are now back in the UK and the other has left India, as have all the non-Indian crew and embarked security guards of the Sierra Leone-flagged anti-piracy ship Seaman Guard Ohio (SGO).

Maritime London member, The Mission to Seafarers confirmed to London Matters on Monday this week that, in partnership with Seafarers UK, also a member of Maritime London, the charity had paid for the Chennai Six’s hotel accommodation on their release and for flights home, or out of India. It has also found temporary accommodation in Britain for two of the men. A spokesperson said that the Mission would continue to support the men as long as necessary.

Within 36 hours of the men being arrested in 2013, the Mission provided counselling, advice and financial support around the clock to the men and their families. It has provided and administered a legal fund to fight the men’s case, as well as paid for medical treatment for the Ukrainian Master’s terminal illness in partnership with the International Transport Workers Federation’s (ITF) Seafarers’ Trust. Its Dubai-based regional director, regularly visited the prison and flew out to commence an initial counselling session and help the men prepare for home as soon as the news of the acquittal broke.

Convicted on arms smuggling charges two years ago, the men were acquitted by an appeal court on 20 November, nearly two years into their sentences, and then freed.

The six Britons, three Ukrainians, 14 Estonians and 12 Indians were on the vessel when it was detained in 2013 while refuelling, allegedly within Indian territorial waters. Like several other similar vessels, the SGO provided armed guards for merchant ships to protect them from Somali-based pirates operating in the Indian Ocean. As such the vessel carried a quantity of arms and ammunition on board. The men had maintained throughout that they were onboard doing their job, following their employers’ instructions and providing an essential service to the global shipping industry and they were not trying to smuggle arms into India.

Inexplicably, the ship had entered Indian waters three weeks previously, been inspected and no issues were raised. Speaking to the All-Party Parliamentary Maritime and Ports Group last week, the Mission’s secretary general, Andrew Wright, stressed that one of the lessons to be learnt from this episode was the need for consistency in the way regulations were applied both between and within countries.

This case, which is widely as being particularity troubling, has ground extremely slowly through the judicial process. This latest ruling was the second time the men had been cleared, but on the first occasion the prosecutor successfully challenged the decision. The men were arrested on 18 October 2013 and in December that year were charged with illegal refuelling, illegal handling of firearms and illegal entry into territorial waters. The case went through several court proceedings but was eventually returned by India’s Supreme Court to the Tuticorin magistrate court, which on 11 January year sentenced the men to five years’ imprisonment for entering India with weapons. At the end of January, they appealed and applied for bail. The bail application was rejected on 29 February but the court allowed the appeal hearings to proceed. The appeal hearing started in October and finished on 30 November 2016, when a decision was deferred. That ruling was eventually delivered on Monday two weeks ago, a few days short of a year later, and the men were freed the next day.

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