The crew of the floating armoury Seaman Guard Ohio have today been acquitted of all charges by the Maduria bench of the Madras High Court, after spending four years in jail.
The 35 seafarers and security personnel were detained aboard the Sierra Leone-registered floating armoury ship by police in Tamil Nadu in October 2013 after it was claimed they had entered Indian territorial waters for bunkering. The police accused the crew of carrying unregistered weapons and making an illicit money transfer for the bunkers. The Q Branch of the Tamil Nadu police, which originally took up the investigation, charged the crew members under a number of acts, including the Arms Act, Indian Penal Code, and Essential Commodities Act.
The crew were convicted in January 2016 and sentenced to five years of “rigorous imprisonment”, a surprise outcome as the charges had previously been overturned and the men freed. Including the first six months the crew were imprisoned, they have served half of the five-year sentence.
On Monday, Judge Bashir Ahmed pronounced the acquittal, stating that the prosecution had failed to prove the coastguard had intercepted the vessel within the territorial water of India.
The acquittal has been welcomed by families of the crew, who had previously expressed concerns over the judge's understanding of the complexities of the case: he had previously recused himself on 5 October before returning to the case on 12 October.
A social media post from the families of six British men working as security guards on Seaman Guard Ohio said that “justice had prevailed” and they will now wait to hear “as and when” the men will be allowed to return to their families.
Stephen Askins, a partner in UK law firm Tatham Macinnes, who has worked on the case for the past four years, told Fairplay sister title Safety at Sea that the next steps would be to get the men out, “which should happen in a day or so”. There is only a “residual risk” that the Indian government will appeal the acquittal, he stressed, adding that details of the judgment would be released tomorrow, “which will give us greater insight”.
Meanwhile, the charity Mission to Seafarers, which has provided support to the crew, said the decision marked “the end of a traumatic four-year period spent in captivity since their arrest in 2013”.
Ben Bailey, director of advocacy at Mission to Seafarers, said that the Seaman Guard Ohio case highlighted the risks that “millions of seafarers often face when carrying out their everyday jobs”. “The criminalisation of seafarers remains a constant threat to those who are responsible for transporting over 90% of world trade,” he added.
The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has also provided support for the crew since their arrest in 2013 and helped fund the appeal on their behalf. ITF seafarers’ section chair David Heindel said that while at last there was “some form of justice”, one “glaring injustice remains: the scandal of AdvanFort [the owner of Seaman Guard Ohio] getting off scot free, having washed it hands of its employees”. He added: “They took the money, they sauntered off, pockets bulging. It is nothing short of shameful that our justice system allows them to get away with this.”
The Seaman Guard Ohio case has also been used as a key example of the risks of unregulated floating armouries, with the Indian government and others in the shipping industry calling for tighter regulations.
In May 2018, the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) 99 will discuss progress on the possibility of developing an international regulatory framework for floating armouries.