The Chennai Six – Justice for Crew of M/V Seaman Guard Ohio

AdvanFort’s Seaman Guard Ohio. Image: AdvanFort

By Captain George Livingstone – Some stories are worth telling over, this is one.  Perhaps the reader will recall a rather spectacular international story from 2013 regarding an anti-piracy ship called the ‘Seaman Guard Ohio’.  It was a floating armory ship owned by an American company named AdvanFort.  The ship contracted and supplied mobile ‘anti-piracy’ personnel to merchant vessels transiting the dangerous waters of the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.  In-between assignments the guards would stand by on the ship for ready deployment. 

At first-glance it seems a rather innovative idea to supply anti-piracy teams via a mobile platform.  There are complicated issues, however, about the movement of weapons through various territorial waters.  The company claimed to have met all required registrations and disclosures. 

A Complicated Story

On October 12, 2013, while at anchor in international waters (disputed by India), the ship was intercepted by the Indian Coast Guard Cutter ICGS Naiki Devi and escorted to anchor in the port of Tuticorin.  Before proceeding into port, the vessel master again declared weapons on board and the nature of the ship’s mission.  After anchoring, the Ukrainian captain and the British tactical deployment leader (supervisor of the security personnel) were then questioned by a multi-agency team from the Indian Coast Guard, Navy, Customs and the Q Branch of India’s Intelligence Bureau. 

The Indian authorities claimed it was just a routine paperwork check although a check had already been done two months prior in Indian territorial waters.  Over many days various authorities came aboard questioning the ship’s master.  Obviously something was wrong.  After running low on fuel, food and water the ship’s master contacted the Indian Coast Guard for help and the ship was allowed to dock. 

Indian authorities then boarded the ship and notified the master that everyone needed to be taken to the hospital for medical checks.  Once the men got off the ship, their passports were seized and they were arrested.  The Europeans were taken to Puzhal Central Jail in Chennai where they languished for three months before charges were actually delivered against them.  Indian media reported at the time that it was assumed the men were linked to Al Qaeda and the Tamil Tigers (later debunked).  The following eventual charges laid against them were: 

  • Entering territorial waters with illegal firearms
  • Illegal procurement of fuel

Freedom Overturned

After being confined in prison for six months, in April 2014, the men were released on bail with strict orders to report in to police twice a day until the investigation was completed.  In July 2014 all charges were dropped via the Indian High Court and the men were free to leave India.  The Q Branch of India’s Intelligence Service, however, would not return the men’s passports even after a British Government request.  Indian law allowed the Q Branch ninety days to lodge an appeal during which time passports could be withheld.  The British government relented telling the men they would have to await a possible appeal by Q Branch.  Just prior to the ninetieth day, Q Branch lodged an appeal resulting in the case going to trial.     

I’m sure the reader gets the jist of where this is heading, as did the poor souls from the ship.  After many delays involving nearly another year of time, on January 11, 2016, the ship’s entire complement was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.  Lawyers for the crew members and guards appealed the decision in late 2016, and to date are still awaiting an answer from the Indian courts.  As of this writing, the men have served over two years of their five-year sentence.  There have been multiple discussions between both governments regarding the case, so far to no avail.  There is currently an effort underway to submit a petition to the Chief Justice of the Indian Supreme Court, likely the last chance the men have to overturn the decision.  

So, what happened?

A September 15, 2015, BBC story stated that just prior to the ship being detained, AdvanFort Head Quarters had ordered an illegal fuel delivery for the ship.  Indian customs law demands ships refueling at sea (within Indian jurisdiction) must use regulated sources.  AdvanFort management was attempting to purchase and deliver fuel ‘under the radar’ of Indian customs law.  Emails received anonymously by the BBC show that AdvanFort managers ordered the ship’s captain to take fuel and hide any trace of it, in other words, a cover up.  Emails leaked to BBC indicate at least one manager at Advanfort recognized the danger of such an order, emailing senior management ’Misleading customs and port state officials regarding a vessels mission, mechanical condition and seaworthiness is a serious matter’ ‘I will not condone that type of misrepresentation’ adding ’Such behavior puts our vessels and crew at risk of arrest.’  Shortly after the fueling, Indian authorities detained the ship having apparently determined the ship had broken Indian customs law.

The BBC story alludes that the ship did break Indian Customs law making it a calamity by an attempting a cover up.  There was also the charge of illegal firearms by Indian authorities.  The question then is who is legally responsible and accountable?  The company itself, Advanfort?  It would seem certain.  The ship’s master and chief engineer?  Much as I hate to admit it, yes, they knowingly engaged in an illegal activity against what may have been their better judgement.  What about the poor ship’s cook?  The ordinary seamen? The hired security personnel simply riding aboard awaiting a piracy escort assignment?  No, they should not be held responsible.

Like any law, when maritime or customs law is broken, the responsible parties should be sought out.  It doesn’t take a maritime or customs lawyer to determine that the responsible parties in this case are the American company Advanfort, the master, chief engineer and the vessel itself.  It’s a travesty of justice to imprison other individuals aboard who were not responsible; that is in fundamental opposition to international convention and law.  The actions taken by Indian authorities in this case are the lowest form of coarse, punitive action by a major maritime nation that should know better.  One can only hope that the Indian Supreme Court will overturn this miscarriage of justice against the poor souls who had nothing to do with the decisions made by the company, master and chief engineer.  I am reminded of the Spanish Supreme Courts’ imprisonment of the master of the tanker Prestige, once again ‘We should hang our heads in shame.’

Footnotes

This is a major story in the U.K. and there is an ongoing push to get the Chennai Six case appealed to the Indian Supreme Court this coming October.  Hopefully the sentence will be overturned and the six Britons released on time served along with the rest of the non-responsible crewmembers.  

This article would not have been possible without the help of Lisa Dunn, sister of Nick Dunn, one of the detainees being held by the Indian Government.  I would also like to thank Mr. Jordan Wylie, Maritime Security Adviser for his efforts on behalf of the Chennai Six and for introducing me to Ms. Dunn.

The men in this case are, of course, still in prison.  They must purchase and pay for many things, even water as well as still being responsible for all personal financial obligations back in the U.K.  If anyone is interested there is a fundraising page through ‘Just Giving’ called The Chennai 6, it is overseen by Mission to Seafarers Charity who have stepped up to support these men