In an radio interview on BBC World Service news this week, a former Indian seafarer defended his country’s imprisonment of the men on board the armory vessel Seaman Guard Ohio with the defense that soldiers sail on naval ships not merchant ships.
He said: “The police and other law enforcement authorities in India would have reasonable cause to suspect an alleged merchant ship which looked very much like a war ship, certainly not supposed to be where it was and, most of all, carrying a whole lot of arms and ammo.”
The ship was not in a piracy zone, he says. “The piracy zone is the horn of Africa not the southern tip of India… gun running is not exactly unknown in the Indian Ocean.”
On October 12, 2013, the 35 crew and guards on the Seaman Guard Ohio were arrested in India’s territorial waters for possession of illegal arms and environmental pollution. Indian authorities arrested six British nationals, three Ukrainians, fourteen Estonians as well as twelve Indians after they boarded the ship.
The men were thrown in jail and ordered to stand trial for crimes against the state. While all charges were eventually dropped in July 2014 by the High Court of India, the men’s passports were confiscated so that they could not leave the country legally.
After almost a year of detention and living in limbo, the Supreme Court of India upheld the charges and remanded the men for trial, and, on January 11, 2016, after a brief trial all of the men were sentenced to five years of hard labor.
A final appeal is scheduled to be heard on June 1, 2016; meanwhile, the men remain imprisoned in an Indian jail.
In this week’s program, the BBC notes that media coverage in India has tended towards an assumption of guilt for the men that were on board Seaman Guard Ohio.
David Hammond, CEO of the charity Human Rights at Sea was also interviewed on the program, and he responded to the commentator’s reference to the private maritime security guards on board as “foreign mercenaries.”
“The advent of these floating armories and organizations that provide armed guards to global shipping is well known,” he said. “The reality is that, at the time of their detention in 2013, we were coming out of the end of what was a very large piracy problem. We can understand the Indian reaction to it when they have a history of terrorism within their borders and external to their borders, but the reality is that we’ve got to deal with the facts in a court of law.”
Hammond is convinced that government authorities in the U.K. and around the world are working behind the scenes to do all they can for the men and their families, but “a basic tenet of international law is that states don’t interfere with other state’s business, particularly when looking at legal matters.”
Hammond says it is important that the legal rights and representation of the security guards on board are not separated from the rights of the crew. Following a European Parliament Motion for a Resolution on the issue on 19 January, Hammond added: “We urge the European Parliament to take full consideration of the necessity of equal legal representation and support of both the guards and the crew.”
Human Rights at Sea is fully supporting the efforts of other welfare organisations involved in the matter, including the pastoral care and support being provided by the Mission to Seafarers.
Human Rights at Sea, he says, has pushed that the narrative on which the men are convicted must be correct in law. “I don’t think we can do a lot more at this stage than show that the facts don’t necessarily fit the judgement,” says Hammond.
Human Rights at Sea has prepared a case study here.
The BBC program can be heard here (13:35 – 20:05).