Hope, we are not overlooking our two Indian officers, Capt. Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan, the off-beam sufferers of MV Hebei Sprit. Today (10th Dec, 08, Wednesday) the South Korean court has sentenced jail to both Capt. Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan after ruling they were partly to blame for the country’s worst oil spill. The duo was experiencing “departure ban” imposed by the Government of the Republic of Korea, whereas a federal Korean court had acquitted them of as being innocent of all charges of violating the nation’s ocean pollution law. The Korean prosecution of the Oil spill case appealed the case in the Korean Appeal’s Court. Despite of federal court’s acquittal and suitable bond and assurance from the duo as well as their employer V.Ships, that they will return to South Korea to attend the trial, the Korean Govt. did not allow Capt. Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan to leave the country.
On 6 December 2007, Mr. Chawla and Mr. Chetan had anchored their 260,000 dwt large crude oil career “MV Hebei Spirit” at the place instructed by the Deasan Port at 1918 hrs. While anchoring, the vessel put on all the necessary lights that required by the collision regulations. At 0702 hrs on 7 December 2007, a passing crane-carrying barge, which was under tow of tugs Samsung T No 5 and Samho T3, was collided with anchored Hebei Spirit. The collision ended with the largest oil spill ever in South Korea. The barge was floating free after the cable linking it to the tug snapped in the rough seas.
The collision punctured the hull of Hebei Spirit and resulted seeping out of around 10,800 tones of oil, although no causalities reported. Five people including the two Indian officers were arrested initially, but declared the duo as innocent by a federal court later. It was an unfortunate disaster the South Korean Govt. ever faced with ongoing environmental and economic effects. At least 30 beaches had been affected and over half of the region’s sea farms were believed to have lost their stocks duo to the spill. The South Korean Govt. declared a state of disaster in the region. An estimated cost of around 300 billion South Korean Won had been spent to clean up of the region.
Various reports on the issue disclosed that the barge captain was warned twice by the regional office of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries that it was too close to the tanker before two hours of the incident occurred but all was in vein. The barge captain is also under investigation. Whereas, while anchoring, the vessel (Hebei Spirit) obeyed all the necessary rules put forth by the collision regulations.
Along with two tug masters, the two Indian offices of Hebei Spirit were also arrested initially. But the Hebei Spirit officers were cleared of all charges by a South Korean court, while the two tug masters were jailed because of their part in the accident. But the Government of the Republic of Korea imposed a “departure ban” on the duo which was regrettable. The Korean Govt left the shipping industry dumbfounded with their ban on the two offices.
In a short conversation with Jobships.com (5 November 2008), Mr. Abdulgani Serang, General Secretary of NUSI said “It’s very pathetic that the two Indian officers are still experiencing a departure ban, even after a clean acquittal from a federal court”. The Asian Shipowners’ Forum issuing a press release on 12th Aug, 2008 expressed its deep concern to the Government of the Republic of Korea on the continued departure ban imposed by the Korean authorities on Capt. Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan. They said that it is clearly against the rule of Guidelines on the Fair Treatment of Seafarers in the Event of a Maritime Accident imposed by the United Nation’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Labor Organization, to which the Republic of Korea is a Party. Remarkably, the Korean Government had earlier taken a leading role in the development of the Guidelines.
This unfortunate incident worries the shipping industry a lot. Several organizations across the world showed their strong protests against the decision of Korean Govt which includes ITF, International Group of P&I Clubs, BIMCO, ISF, INTERCARGO, INTERTANKO and the Hong Kong Ship-owners’ Association. In India, strong protests are holding in support of the two Indian duo. NUSI and MUI, on 31st July, 2008 issued a joint protest against the continued detention by the Korean authorities of Capt. Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan. Seafarers turned up in large number demanding the immediate release of the two officers and petitioning the Indian government to intervene in the matter. The Asian Shipowners’ Forum (ASF) issued a press release on 12th Aug, 2008 where they are requesting the Government of the Republic of Korea to grant special permission for the two officers to return to their home country soonest possible on humanitarian grounds.
Recently on Oct 25th ‘08, intervening the matter, the Indian Govt has requested South Korea to release the two Indian seamen, which was supported by China and Liberia. While writing this article today (10 December, 2008), the federal appeal court declaring final judgment on the issue, found the Hebei Spirit and its officers partly to blame for the spillage on 7 December last year and sentenced 18 months prison to Captain Jasprit Chawla and fined 20 million Won (USD 14,000) while chief officer Syam Chetan was sentenced to eight months and fined 10 million Won. (Yonhap News).
Mr. Abdulgani Serang, NUSI General Secretary, issued the following statement on the Hebei Spirit issue: “With this unfair judgment, the waters of South Korea have become another Gulf of Aden of Somalia where maritime terrorist of Somalia hijacked the ships. As Seafarers are apprehensive to trade in the Gulf of Aden, similarly with this judgment against Capt. Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan of Hebei Spirit seafarers will now be apprehensive to trade the South Korean waters where they are criminalize for discharging their professional duties”. With above developments it seems that the seafarers are being treated as scapegoats and the international laws laid down by various national Governments are kept aside. These incidents will only fuel the manpower crisis which the industry is reeling under. We hope that the above judgment is challenged in an international maritime court and fair trial is given.