January 30, 2014

Guns and cavity searches



Now that Devyani Khobragade fracas has reached some sort of conclusion that saves face on both the US and Indian sides, I am curious to know what will develop in the case in India that involves AdvanFort and its crew detained in India. It is possible that I am a hammer seeing only a nail, but I believe that the two events are closely intertwined and that US actions were in response to the Seaman Guard Ohio detention of its mercenaries and crew. Countries do not react to diplomatic petty crimes in a vacuum, and neither do they humiliate female diplomats of friendly countries with body cavity searches unless they have an agenda or want to send a message. I believe the agenda was AdvanFort. 

Interestingly, while the Khobragade affair was in full bloom, so to speak, with vitriol flowing freely from both sides, Advanfort put out a public statement saying that the crew aboard the armed-guard accommodation vessel had been released on bail. This turned out to be incorrect; the bail order had been rescinded by a higher Indian court and the crew were never released. I wonder if this happened because a US-India deal went sour. 

I am not too concerned with the Khobragade affair; I will only point out that both the US State and Indian babudom (and other Indian elite) share some distasteful traits that escalated the mess- they both believe that exceptionalism should apply to them, that they are above any law- national or international- that they choose to break and that individuals or countries perceived weaker than them are fair game. So I leave them to their own predictable devices.

The Seaman Guard Ohio incident is curious. Here is a ship owned by AdvanFort and its self- proclaimed billionaire Arab owner Samir Farajallah who is based in the US; he lives close to the White House. AdvanFort calls itself a private maritime security company; however, it belongs more in the shadowy world of US military contractors that operate around the world, and not just in Iraq or Afghanistan. (A recent report says that US Special Ops forces are present in a staggering 134 countries around the world, i.e. in 70% of them. This is not a Bush thing alone; these numbers have gone up by 123% during Obama’s reign. And, while US Special Ops are not private contractors, the US does use the latter extensively along with the former. AdvanFort has, amongst other things, supplied arms to Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.) 

AdvanFort has been manned in the recent past almost entirely by senior ex US naval officers, and retired intelligence and military officials ashore. Two of its senior (non-military) executives quit this month amidst rumours that AdvanFort was in financial difficulties. Given its background, it is unsurprising that the company has very close links with the US government and military, even though it paid a fine in the US two years ago for making false statements in connection with arms purchases and end-user certificates. 

To facts regarding the Ohio are ominous, and bring up, in India, the ghost of the 1995 Purulia arms drop in West Bengal. The Indians have recovered 35 assault rifles and 5,724 rounds of ammunition from the Ohio; Indian security and intelligence agencies are apparently trying to now determine if there is an LTTE, Islamic terrorist group or naxalite connection here. 

AdvanFort’s explanations about the Ohio, its arms and its location are interesting- and most of them do not wash. An anti-piracy armed guard ship, which is what they claim the Ohio is, has no business hanging around the south-eastern tip of India, thousands of miles away from where the action is. Then, it was claimed that the Ohio was forced close to the Indian coast because of a cyclone; Indian officials were quick to point out that the ship wasn’t in cyclone affected waters to begin with.  It does appear that the ship was low on fuel, though, which is why it came that close to the coast, and which is why it came about that its 10 crew and 25 security guys- Britons, Indians and East Europeans- are now in jail.

High profile British law firm Ince & Company has now been recruited by AdvanFort to fight the Ohio case. Ince claim that the ship had been boarded many times by Indian officials, including in Kochi, within the last few months and are campaigning to move the case to a ‘neutral’ forum. Stories have appeared in the British media about the squalid conditions of Indian prisons and the need to honour soldiers who have fought for that country (at least one of the mercenaries detained off the Ohio is ex British army.) Other stories say that this is another case of seafarer criminalisation. British PM David Cameron says he is doing ‘everything possible’ to have the six Britons who were on the Ohio released from Indian jail.

Caught up in the high octane Khobragade incident, the Indian media has largely underreported the Ohio incident. In my opinion, however, the Indian government is doing things right, for once. They say they are investigating the Ohio- only fair, given the huge national security implications and given, also, the existing presence of many foreign intelligence networks in South India. There are no strident accusations claiming that the Ohio was definitely gun running, though presumably national intelligence and security agencies are working hard behind the scenes to rule this possibility out.  

India messed up badly with its handling of the 2012 Italian marine shooting incident; let’s hope it continues to do things right this time. Let us hope it ignores who lives close to the White House, or who is in bed with who in Washington, as it investigates the Seaman Guard Ohio affair- which is far more important to the nation than the Khobragade body cavity search tamasha.

Meanwhile, to those who are crying criminalistion of seafarers, I will say this- armed men, whether they are mercenaries or armed guards, are not seafarers. Even so, I agree that they should be released as soon as (and if) they are cleared after investigation in India. As for the squalid Indian prisons bit, well, that is the way the cookie crumbles, sometimes, in life, when you work far from home. Ask any real seaman.
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1 comment:

Reid Sprague said...

Dear Manu,

I don't know how I missed this one, but somehow I did. Excellent - and I love this quote: "I will only point out that both the US State and Indian babudom (and other Indian elite) share some distasteful traits that escalated the mess- they both believe that exceptionalism should apply to them, that they are above any law- national or international- that they choose to break and that individuals or countries perceived weaker than them are fair game. So I leave them to their own predictable devices." That states the case very well!

God bless you,

Reid