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Rise in wrongly jailed seafarers triggers development of IMO guidelines

Rise in wrongly jailed seafarers triggers development of IMO guidelines
Michelle Wiese Bockmann 28 Mar 2023

Heroic Idun crew members were detained in Nigeria under armed guard. Source: All India Seafarers Union
Submissions to IMO claim seafarers are criminalised before all facts are known

Legal committee told of urgent need for fairer treatment of seafarers suspected of maritime crimes, and development of database outlining current cases

A WORKING group has been set up to establish guidelines for the fairer treatment of seafarers detained on suspicion of maritime crimes following a series of harrowing, high-profile cases.

The International Maritime Organization’s Legal Committee supported developing the non-mandatory guidelines alongside a database of current cases by ship and seafarer during a meeting this week.

The guidelines would be loosely based around a similar set developed in 2006 for the fairer treatment of seafarers involved in maritime accidents.

Two submissions from Georgia, the representative groups for seafarers, shipmanagers, shipowners and masters, as well as insurers and an international transport union called for joint tripartite working group with the International Labour Organisation.

“The significance and seriousness of such problems represent a huge challenge for the industry,” BIMCO’s representative told the committee meeting.

India’s delegation said seafarers had been imprisoned or detained for prolonged periods of time, and denied consular access, highlighting the case of the 26 crew detained in Nigeria under armed guard on board Heroic Idun (IMO: 9858058), a very large crude carrier.

The crew were charged under anti-piracy laws last November after fleeing Nigerian waters and being held in Equatorial Guinea since last August.

Underscoring urgency was the case of wrongly jailed Polish master Andrzej Lacosta, who languished for 18 months in a Mexican prison after he reported the discovery of cocaine aboard his Cyprus-flagged bulk carrier UBC Savannah (IMO: 9220976) shocked the maritime community who fought for his release in February 2021.

Mexico’s delegate told the committee that “lessons had been learnt” since the wrongful detention of Capt Lasota, adding that the government had strengthened institutional coordination because of the case and supported the working group.

The International Transport and Workers’ Federation highlighted another case of Panama-flagged general cargoship Flying (IMO: 9163051) and 15 seafarers unfairly detained and imprisoned on flimsy evidence.

The fairer treatment of seafarers was recognised as an urgent situation that needs to be addressed, and there was support for an IMO database to be established, the chair of the legal committee told delegates.

“Seafarers are criminalised even before all the facts are ascertained,” one submission said. “Masters are the first to suffer unwarranted detentions by law enforcement agencies solely on the basis of their superior position on the ship, regardless of whether they were on duty at the time the event qualifying as a crime occurred, or whether they had an opportunity to influence the situation.”

The working group would discuss the form under which the database would be developed, and how to define the difference between maritime accidents and maritime crimes in the guidelines.

“The underlying point, which everyone agreed to is that criminal matters are a matter for national jurisdictions and the guidelines must respect this principle,” the chair said. “The working group should consider whether seafarers require special consideration due to the international nature of their work and the industry. There was support for expediting proceedings for seafarers under national legislation so that they rights would be respected.

“It will be necessary to consider how seafarers can report potential crimes, while not being afraid of being accused by them. Delegations expressed the need to consider all countries’ legislation, and judicial practices, and to consider issues of foreign language barriers, and cultural bias.”

The guidelines for fairer treatment of seafarers in maritime accidents were developed amid concerns about the criminalisation of seafarers after many were wrongly detained and jailed.

The working group will report to the committee on March 31.