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Indian seafarers’ nine-month ordeal ends as Nigerian Navy releases seized ship

After a nine-month-long ordeal, 16 Indian seafarers who were detained in Equatorial Guinea for three months and later in Nigeria have been finally released, bringing relief to their families. The Norwegian vessel, ‘MV Heroic Idun’, is now en route to Cape in South Africa, and the sailors are expected to fly home on June 7.

For the families of three sailors in Kerala, this marks the end of a harrowing wait as their loved ones were among those detained on the ship since August last year. Over the past several months, the families have been tirelessly reaching out to the state and central governments, pleading for the release of the detained sailors. The sailors, in distress, shared several videos exposing their plight and agony during detention.

The vessel, which was on its way to pick up crude oil from Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria, was intercepted by a naval ship of Equatorial Guinea in international waters on August 12. The ship, with a crew of 26 sailors including 16 Indians, along with others from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Poland, was accused by Nigeria of stealing crude from their terminal. Mistaking a Navy patrol boat for sea pirates, the crew of MV Heroic Idun refused to be intercepted, leading to their detention in Equatorial Guinea following an alert from Nigeria. In November last year, Guinea handed over the ship and its sailors to the custody of Nigeria based on a request from the latter. The crew faced charges of conspiracy, evasion of lawful interception, and unlawful export of crude oil.

On April 28, a federal court in Nigeria acquitted the sailors of all charges, but their release was delayed due to the pending payment of a fine by the ship owner, Norway’s OSM Maritime Group, for unauthorized entry into Nigerian waters.

“The voyage was legal. The ship had every document to prove the charges against it as baseless. A normal trial in court could be time-consuming, sometimes running into years. That would further delay the release of the sailors. Hence, the shipping company decided on an out-of-court settlement regarding the case against the ship,” sources said.

Sheethal Milton, wife of one of the Indian sailors, Milton D’couth, said, “There was no regular communication. They were taken from one country to another. For the last nine months, we would wake up every day expecting some positive news. Even though the court had acquitted them of charges in April, anxiety about their release persisted.”

During their time in Nigerian custody, the ship remained anchored off Bonny Port. “For the last six months, they lived under the custody of Nigerian navy personnel. All their mobile phones were seized and kept in a locker on the ship with a naval staff guarding it. Once in 15 days, phones were given back and they were allowed to make three to five minutes calls to home. The guarding naval staff insisted that the detained men should speak only in English. They wanted to know what these people were telling their families,’’ sources said.

In Equatorial Guinea, the sailors were detained in a congested room, deprived of proper food, water, and basic facilities. Some of them fell sick during their three-week detention in a camp. Later, they were held captive on the ship, anchored at the Port of Luba in Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea.

“The allegation against the ship was that it had stolen crude oil from Nigeria. The Opposition parties in Nigeria had made it a big issue, forcing their government to seek custody of the ship and its sailors. There was a plan to lodge the sailors in jail, but during the probe, it became evident that their documents were valid and the voyage was legal. The sailors also fully cooperated with the investigation. This made the Nigerian authorities allow them to continue in the detained ship. They also turned up in the court, whenever the case was posted for hearing, ‘’sources said.

In Kollam, Trivikraman Nair, father of another sailor Vijith V Nair, said, “Although the detainees did not face any major hardships under Nigerian custody, we were worried about their release. The anxiety over release had really shattered us. But, the Indian high commission in Abuja in Nigeria has been helpful to them. The High commissioner G Balasubramanian used to visit sailors in the ship and ensured all support for their release.”
Source: The Indian Express

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