India hoping for speedy return of its sailors

By Dipankar De Sarkar,IANS,

London : India is hoping that two Indian sailors will be allowed to leave South Korea “very quickly” after being held in the southeast Asian country for over 18 months for an oil spillage that they did not cause.

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The chief nautical adviser to New Delhi, Captain M.M. Saggi, expressed the hope here on the sidelines of a meeting of the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London, where South Korean diplomats said they expected the two seamen to be allowed to leave “within two weeks”.

“We and the Korean delegation are hoping that the men will be allowed to come back home very quickly,” Saggi said ahead of a South Korean court judgement expected June 11.

The two Indian sailors are widely seen – by a large number of countries as well as the international seafaring and shipping community – as innocent victims.

Jaspreet Chawla, captain of a Hong Kong-registered oil tanker the Hebei Spirit, and his Chief Officer Shyam Chetan have not been allowed to leave South Korea since Dec 7, 2007, when a crane barge rammed into their stationary ship in stormy weather, causing a spillage of 10,000 tonnes of oil on the country’s west coast.

The two men were cleared of all charges by the first court hearing the case, but were then held guilty by the high court after an appeal by prosecutor.

However, the South Korean Supreme Court overturned the high court ruling this year and set the men free on bail, a ruling that has allowed Chawla’s family to join him sporadically.

The judgement was publicly welcomed by New Delhi at last week’s sitting of the IMO’s maritime safety council, with Saggi telling the meeting: “We are pleased and welcome the Supreme Court of Korea judgement in Hebei Spirit case to the extent that it has overturned the jail sentence of Captain Chawla and Chief Officer Mr Chetan.”

But Capt Saggi called upon the South Korean government to right what he described as “grave injustices done to the two men” and formally pardon them after 535 days of detention.

“These two men are not guilty at all. It’s like someone hitting you when you are sitting in a parked car,” Saggi told IANS on the sidelines of the IMO meeting.

“After a year a half, you are still holding them back. But for what?” Saggi said, expressing a view that has been echoed at the IMO by the delegations of China, Hong Kong, Italy and Liberia and almost all of the world’s major associations of shipowners, seafarers and transport workers.

Demonstrations have been held in Chennai and Mumbai in support of the two men.

“There is not one person that is opposing their release,” said Saggi.

“The chief officer’s father has not seen him for 535 days. He is obviously a very very worried man,” Saggi said.