It is time that India set free and sent home the guards and crew of the MV ‘Seaman Guard Ohio’ instead of threatening them with the ordeal of another trial. They have suffered enough over the last year.
The 35 men on the AdvanFort ship in India- British, Estonian, Ukrainian and Indians- were detained in India last October after their anti-piracy support vessel was forced into Indian waters in a storm. The Ohio crew were accused of illegally possessing weapons and kept in a Chennai jail. Most were bailed by April, and weapons charges against them were dropped in July. However, their passports were not returned to them, and now Indian security agencies- some say the Q Branch- have appealed to the Supreme Court to have the charges reinstated. Which, if it happens, means another protracted trial at the highest court in the land.
As can be expected, the case is made more complex by the actors in it, the murky world of private security contractors (AdvanFort is particularly murky) included. Then, Captain Valentyn of the Ohio has claimed he was tricked into Indian waters- by Coast Guard officials who told him the ship was in the path of a cyclone- and his ship subsequently arrested. He still faces charges of illegal bunkering- which, after a year, should be dismissed out of hand.
Not so easily dismissed are India’s legitimate concerns about its maritime security, particularly after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, something that has undoubtedly resulted in it being particularly hard on the Ohio and its armed men.
As I wrote here in another piece in January this year (Guns and cavity searches), I do not really consider the men of the Ohio as seamen. I sympathise with them, though, because their breed have helped my breed protect our crews and our ships. But that is not why I want India to set them free.
I want that because there is nothing I have heard or read that indicates that the men on the Ohio were part of any conspiracy against India or a threat to it. The fact that the weapons charges were dropped by the Chennai High Court reinforces that belief. These men- lured into Indian waters or not- were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In that respect, at least, they are like most seamen who have been criminalised.