Enclosed by steel walls and surrounded by men (often wearing bright orange jumpsuits!) mariners have long joked that “Going to sea is like going to prison with the added chance of drowning,” but some mariners are no longer laughing because going to sea is increasingly resulting in prison terms for unlucky captains.
On March 29, 2011, Panamanian authorities received an anonymous tip that drugs were on board the MV MAAS TRADER. When the vessel arrived at Cristobal, Panama, a search warrant was issued and 168 packets of cocaine were found. The vessel was detained, the officers and ratings interrogated and a few days later, the vessel and crew were released.
All except Captain Lyubomirov Sobadzhiev.
Captain Sobadzhiev has now been in jail for 17 months without charge at the Jojoya Prison, a place that does not provide for the most basic needs of toiletries, clean water and nutritious food. What Sobadzhiev is not lacking however, is international support. Toward the end of 2011, The Council of American Master Mariners, an organization with a long history of supporting ship masters of all nationalities, enlisted the help of admiralty lawyer Dr. John A.C. Cartner of the firm Cartner & Fiske to help free Sobadzhiev.
In the following months Dr. Cartner, along with Peter D. Wolf of the Law Offices of Peter D. Wolf, faced a legal system that has erected numerous roadblocks to delay the case and prevent the release of Captain Sobadzhiev.
“There is nearly a strict liability standard for drug cases in Panama.” said Dr. Cartner. “This means that once drugs are found aboard a vessel and it is determined that the Master was in charge, that an extremely strong defense is required to change the presumption of the government that the Master is closely involved and therefore is a culpable party and likely guilty.”
Faced with these difficulties, Cartner’s team contacted many colleagues in the maritime industry for assistance. In particular, they looked to enlist the help of the ship operator, owner, and manning agent in Holland, but they were unsuccessful. Dr. Cartner believes that one major reason for our lack of success was that nearly one year has elapsed since the incident occurred.
“We are now at a crossroads.” says Cartner. ”Funds for the defense are depleted, but Captain Sobadzhiev remains imprisoned. Our work is not done. We are prepared to continue as long as it takes to free the man. However, funds are necessary for that time to be effective.”
Sobadzhiev remains hopeful that his luck will turn, but the captain and his supporters they are also aware of the reality of the situation…. the defense fund collected by his supporters, magnified by the hours provided pro bono by Cartner and his partners, is dwindling fast against as the Panamanian legal system drags its feet.
Note: Any organizations or mariners wanting to help Captain Sobadzhiev should contact Dr. Cartner at +1.202.429.2500.