Last Friday, the ITF (International Transport Workers' Federation) issued a press release calling on all it 656 member unions to to contact Korean Authorities with an aim to ensure fair play for the 2 officers of the Hebei Spirit, whose Appeal Court proceedings are awaiting judgement (expected December 10), after having been found innocent the first time around in June of this year.
Union movement mobilises behind Hebei Spirit officers
The ITF today mobilised its entire membership to back efforts to secure the release of the Hebei Spirit’s two officers, who are facing judgement in South Korea on 10 December.
In letters and calls ITF Maritime Coordinator Stephen Cotton has today personally asked the Federation’s 656 member unions to approach the Korean authorities and remind them that the eyes of the world will be on the court and expecting nothing less than an impartial examination of all the evidence – which the ITF and others believe proves the men have been unjustly detained on a prosecutor’s whim and despite having already been found innocent of any blame.
The ITF and its unions will lobby Korean contacts, friends, businesses, diplomats and embassies to convey the message that it is putting its faith in the judges to conduct the trial in the fair and impartial manner that world opinion will expect, free from any suggestion of political interference.
Stephen Cotton commented: “The Hebei Spirit oil spill was a traumatic event in Korea, and there can be no intent to evade responsibility for it. But that blame has already been apportioned by its courts. The tanker was safely at anchor when a runaway barge holed it and those in charge of that barge, and those who owned it, Samsung, have been punished. To try and find others to share that punishment, or lay off some of the blame, especially on conveniently foreign ship’s officers, would be inexcusable.
He continued: “Frankly, that these men are in detention when they have been proved blameless is both impossible to understand and deeply injurious to South Korea’s image abroad. There is only one result that can redress the wrong that has been done to these two men.”
“Yesterday the Greek courts were big enough to admit that they had committed an error in unfairly criminalising a Croatian ship master, Captain Kristo Laptalo. We hope that the South Korean judiciary will consider that example when making up its mind here.”
He concluded: “We remain committed to the bringing to justice of wrongdoers, the investigation of accidents as sea, and the learning of lessons from those investigations. What we cannot and will not support is the continued criminalisation of seafarers.”
HEBEI SPIRIT FACT SHEET
1. The MT Hebei Spirit oil spill in South Korea in December last year was a major incident that had ongoing environmental and economic effects. It was the country’s worst ever such release. The spill was about one-third of the size of the Exxon Valdez release and occurred when a barge struck the Hebei Spirit, which was safely anchored. Despite having been found innocent of any negligence, the Hebei Spirit’s Captain Jasprit Chawla and its Chief Officer Syam Chetan remain in Korea awaiting the results of an appeal, during which they will again faced charges. The appeal decision will be handed down on 10th December.
2. The ITF is very concerned by this example of the criminalisation of seafarers in an incident for which they bear no responsibility. Together with world shipping industry bodies, it has constantly pressed for the men to be allowed to return home pending the new trial, but to no avail. In the run-up to the judgment 10th December, the ITF is asking its affiliates to take action, aimed at drawing the Korean authorities’ attention to the men’s case. From now to December 9th, ITF affiliates are asked to:
Make appointments with Korean embassies and diplomatic representatives to meet, express their concerns and present the attached model letter.
Speak informally to any Korean shipping contacts they may have, at the highest possible level, to express concern.
3. At about 7:30 local time on December 7, 2007, a tug-towed crane barge owned by Samsung Heavy Industries collided with the anchored Hong Kong registered Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) Hebei Spirit, which was carrying 260,000 tonnes (290,000 short tons) of crude oil. The incident occurred near the Port of Daesan on the Yellow Sea coast of Taean County. The barge was floating free after the cable linking it to the tug had snapped in the rough seas. Although no casualties were reported, the collision punctured three of the five tanks aboard the Hebei Spirit and resulted in the leaking of some 10,800 tonnes of oil. Considerable public outrage and concern followed. Korean fishing communities and fishers’ livelihoods were seriously affected.
4. On December 20, the Korean Coast Guard completed an initial investigation. According to their conclusions, blame was shared between the tug captains, the barge captain, and the officers of the Hebei Spirit. The tug captains and the barge captain were charged with negligence and violating the marine pollution prevention law. The officers of the Hebei Spirit were charged with violating marine law. On June 24, the trial concluded. The Hebei Spirit officers were exonerated, as were the personnel on the barge. The two tug captains were found guilty. Barge owners Samsung Heavy Industries were also fined.
Continued Detention of Officers
5. Despite their exoneration, the Hebei Spirit's Captain and Chief Officer continue to be detained in Korea. They are currently awaiting decision of the appeal court because the Korean prosecution appealed the case. The Appeal Judge will give the decision 10th December, after which it could go to the Korean Supreme Court. Korea's detention of the crew has generated worldwide controversy and protests. The crew’s release has been demanded by the ITF and the shipping industry.
6. The ITF is deeply troubled by accusations that Korean maritime officials, prosecutors and Samsung lawyers have colluded in the retrial of the two senior officers. Roberto Giorgi, President of management firm V Ships, visited South Korea to meet with the detained Hebei Spirit crew. He told the press that he is concerned at recent developments "which point to collusion" between the Korean authorities, prosecutors and Samsung Heavy Industries, operators of the drifting barge that collided with the oil tanker, and that efforts of Samsung and prosecutors "look to be designed to ensure that the master and chief officer are found guilty on appeal," Giorgi said. "I am worried that the captain and chief officer may not get a fair trial this time around."
Statements and protests
7. On the 7 July 2008, the ITF appealed to the South Korean authorities to allow the two Hebei Spirit officers found innocent of causing the oil spillage to return home. Backed by the ship manager V Ships, the men gave assurances that they would return as and when any further trial took place, following the local prosecutors’ decision to appeal against the judgment that exonerated them of involvement in the spill. ITF Maritime Coordinator Steve Cotton said: “Captain Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan have asked to be able to go home pending what might be a wait of many, many months before any possible further hearing. We can see no possible reason why they should not be allowed to do so. …There are a number of cases where seafarers have been criminalised and their basic rights denied. In our experience, detention or inability to leave the country where the investigation is taking place – has the sole effect of creating unnecessary psychological and physical discomfort which ultimately can damage the detained seafarers’ health.”
8. On 22 July 2008 organisations across the shipping world issued a vigorous joint protest at the unjust and unreasonable detention of the two officers. The ITF, BIMCO, International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), International Shipping Federation (ISF), INTERCARGO and INTERTANKO), the International Group of P&I Clubs (IG), and the Hong Kong Shipowners’ Association conveyed to the government and authorities of the Republic of Korea their surprise, disappointment and great concern at the news that Korea’s courts intended to continue to detain the ship’s officers, calling this move “unjustified, unreasonable and in contravention of the men’s rights” and reminding the authorities that the trial had determined that another vessel was wholly responsible for the incident.
9. On 31 July 2000 ITF officials met with the two Hebei Spirit officers held in Korea and reported that the men were determined to prove their innocence and had been heartened by the rising chorus of support for them. This included a joint demonstration by Indian seafarers’ unions in Mumbai, which resulted in an Indian Government pledge to take up their plight with the Korean Government and the UN’s International Maritime Organization, and a promise from the Korean Consul to raise the matter in Seoul. ITF General Secretary David Cockroft, who met with Justice Ministry officials in Seoul on the men’s behalf, commented that the spill was a desperately serious matter for the thousands of people living or working in the area, who needed compensation and help. However, he said, the two seafarers had been found innocent of involvement. It was time to reconsider, and release them, he stated.
10. The ITF Seafarers’ Section Conference meeting in Hong Kong on 18-19 November 2008 resolved to make “every effort to secure the immediate release of the Captain and Chief Officer of the Hebei Spirit and an end to the injustice they have been subjected to.”
11. On 21 November 2008, maritime trade unions and shipping companies jointly condemned the ongoing detention of the two officers. Union and ship owner representatives meeting in Hong Kong jointly condemned the treatment of them and pledged to do all they could to secure their release. Both parties stated that since the collision and the ensuing oil spill could not be attributed to any negligence on the officers’ part and since they had already been proven innocent under South Korean law, their treatment was unlawful and unjust, and contravened their human rights.
12. On 26 November at the opening of the IMO (International Maritime Organization) Maritime Safety Committee in London the ITF backed strong interventions in favour of the detained officers from India, Hong Kong and China, stating: “We sympathise with those in South Korea affected by the oil spill but are conscious that Capt Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan have been found innocent of causing last December’s spill. We accept that the Korean Government cannot interfere with the judicial system but call on them to do everything possible to enable the seafarers to be repatriated as soon as possible. Seafarers throughout the world and their representatives are deeply concerned at the unjust treatment of these men and condemn this as another blatant case of criminalisation of a profession that is relied on for our trade. The ITF believes it is time for these men to go home and restore the image of the Republic of Korea as a place where a seafarer can expect fair treatment, justice and respect of their rights.”
13. For more information and views on this (not necessarily those of the ITF), including video footage of the incident please see the following blog: https://owa.mailseat.com/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://justiceforhebeispirit.blogspot.com