Hebei Spirit – The Nautical Institute’s response

This time of year is typically one of reflection, and looking back, 2008 has proven itself to be an incredibly testing time for seafarers the world over. While piracy and cyclical trade downturns are as old as shipping itself, it is the all too common, modern day phenomena of seafarer criminalisation that has once again caused a huge degree of concern.

The case of the “Hebei Spirit” and the jailing of Captain Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan has aggravated and aggrieved the entire shipping industry. In slamming the verdict based on “flawed, unreliable and unjust evidence” the Nautical Institute joins many respected maritime entities, including V Ships, Intertanko, the International Chamber of Shipping, (ICS), and the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), in calling for their release. 

As the “Hebei Spirit” suffered blow after blow from a loose Samsung Crane Barge, and as the officers reacted to the very best of their ability and with every regard to best practice and seamanship, they could surely never believe they would languish in jail for simply doing their best to save their fellow crew, the environment, cargo and the vessel itself.

The prosecution of these two highly professional seafarers, has left us shocked and dismayed, and has ramifications for all linked to the sea. Given the misgivings surrounding the investigation and subsequent report submitted to the court, the entire case and verdict seemingly fly in the face of any concept of “natural justice”. To many, the findings appear biased and certainly lacking good faith. 

As an organisation, The Nautical Institute exists to promote the very highest standards of professionalism in shipping, and this year saw Captain Chawla Highly Commended in the Lloyd’s List “Shipmaster of the year” award, of which we are sponsor. Chawla’s actions onboard “Hebei Spirit” were recognised and applauded, not for political reasons or to court controversy, but because in the face of adversity his response reflected that of all professional Mariners. He and his crew did all they could to mitigate the risks, and yet here we are with two fellow seafarers unfairly jailed.

The Republic of Korea asserts their tribunal’s motto as “fairness and justice”, yet for many these words ring hollow. When the Korean Appeal Court found Chawla and Chetan guilty, it was a blow to professional seafarers of all generations, from yesterday, today and even tomorrow, and is a tragedy from many perspectives. 

The effect on the local environment from the ensuing oil spill has been devastating, and we sympathise greatly with the citizens and nation as it works to remedy the damage from the spill. However, two wrongs do not make a right – and in finding these two officers guilty we are seeing blame placed in the wrong, yet most convenient, quarter.

When the two men were led from court in handcuffs, as common criminals, it was a tragedy on a personal level for proud, family men being made to suffer humiliation. It is also a tragedy for shipping. As an industry we face major problems in recruiting the young, talented people we need into the future. In attacking seafarers, in vilifying them and making them out to be criminals regardless of their actions, then we are in danger of effectively killing seafaring as a career, and in the process damaging world trade. 

While many organisations, quite understandably, call for black listing of Korean products or ports, a backlash from this dreadful miscarriage of justice appears inevitable. As such we wish to add our voice to the calls for the decision of the Court to be overturned. 

Our members are rightly outraged by this verdict but while attention rests today on South Korea, it is worth remembering the proposed European Union regulations seeking to criminalise those involved in maritime accidents; the trial of Captain Mangouros of the “Prestige” and others, approaches in Spain; Captain Laptalo of the “Coral Sea” and his colleagues have been deported from Greece despite eventually being found innocent in the ‘drugs in bananas’ case; France set out to criminalise all and sundry involved with the “Erika”; the “Tasman Spirit” eight had a torrid time in Pakistan; and Venezuela held the master of the “Nissos Amorgos” for many months; and these are only a high profile selection of cases. There are many more instances, such as the Zim Mexico III and Cosco Busan, which a recent BIMCO study, supported by the Institute, brought to the attention of the IMO. 

The time has come to understand and recognise the importance of professional seafarers, not to view them as scapegoats to be threatened and made to suffer at the hands of unenlightened politicians and judiciary. Enough is enough, and the pall of criminalisation, which hangs so heavy on the profession, needs to be lifted immediately.

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