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Caught in the crossfire – crew of the Seaman Guard Ohio

Caught in the crossfire – crew of the Seaman Guard Ohio

There is widespread outrage at the failure of the Indian authorities to release the 35 personnel arrested aboard the floating armoury Seaman Guard Ohio, when the ship was detained by the Indian Coast Guard in October 2013. Although they have been released from custody, they remain unable to leave the country, their documents still held by magistrates in Tutincorin.

Any hopes of an imminent release have been dashed by an appeal by a branch of the Indian Security Services which is anxious to reinstate charges previously dropped by the Indian Supreme Court. The Mission to Seafarers, which it is fair to say, has been hugely active in providing support for the prisoners, has shown its dismay at the latest disappointment. The campaign for the release of the six UK ex-servicemen has been re-ignited.

It will be recalled that the whole issue of armed guards on merchant ships, forced upon the industry by the activities of the Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, has been politically contentious. Governments, which like to think that they have the monopoly of armed force, regarded the development mostly with disapproval, and there are still flag states which will only countenance such assistance if the guards are provided from their armed forces.

The difficulty of persuading governments around the Indian Ocean to permit armed response teams to be shipped and landed from ships in transit has led to the use of floating armouries, which operate in the open ocean outside the control of coastal states. Despite auditing and licensing arrangements approved by IMO, official attitudes probably have not changed and the system often operates under sufferance. Seafarers, who after all, are the people at risk in these pirate-infested waters, are highly critical of the obstacles put in the way of their protectors and have accused governments of being rather more concerned about process than their safety. One could scarcely blame them.

Why is the Indian government taking such a hard line following the Seaman Guard Ohio incident? The plight of the individuals, whether seafarers manning the ship or security guards awaiting deployment, have suffered greatly during their confinement and have attracted much international sympathy, not least because the US owner of the ship ceased to support its employees.

No fair minded person would suggest they are guilty of anything other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time and that they are anything other than the human “collateral damage” caused not only by the pirates, but the political situation off the West coast of India.

In a submission to the IMO in August, the Indian Government made it clear that its intolerance of armed civilian ships off its coasts is not unconnected to its alertness to terrorist attacks, like that on Mumbai in November 2011, when armed terrorists landed from sea and caused mayhem ashore, killing 175 people and injuring nearly 300. The Indian security forces remain in a high state of alert, with only last month noting the attack by the Pakistan Al-Qaeda upon the Karachi Navy base, with the object of capturing Pakistani warships to then attack US and Indian Navy targets.

The Indian government submission notes that some 18 floating armouries were operating on the high seas, carrying some 7,000 weapons, some of which, it suggests, could fall into the wrong hands.

So, on the one hand we have the liberty of these 35 individuals, on the other security concerns in a febrile political climate, with genuine and justifiable fears of terrorism coming from the sea. One can only hope that the human beings, caught up in the midst of this delicate situation, might soon be released.

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