Hebei Two Jailed

Thursday 11 December 2008 Lloyds List by Keith Wallis and Marcus Hand 

Furious reaction from international shipping community at South Korean court decision

THE international shipping community reacted with fury yesterday after a South Korean court jailed the ‘Hebei Two’, the master and chief officer of Hebei Spirit, the tanker involved in the country’s worst oil spill.

National Union of Seafarers of India general secretary Abdulgani Serang told Lloyd’s List: “We are very furious. We condemn this decision. It’s unfair and unjust.”

Mr Serang warned of a possible backlash against South Korea following the jailing of the ship’s master, Jasprit Chawla, and chief officer Syam Chetan who had previously been found innocent at a court hearing on June 23.

He said: “There is a strong possibility Indian seafarers will not take ships to South Korea. The seafaring and shipping communities are deeply disturbed. Reactions are bound to follow.”

The International Transport Workers Federation said the decision was “incomprehensibly vindictive”.

ITF maritime co-ordinator Stephen Cotton said: “This is not justice. It’s not even something close. What we have seen today is scapegoating, criminalisation and a refusal to consider the wider body of evidence that calls into question the propriety of the court. This decision is incomprehensibly vindictive and will impact on all professional mariners.”

He added: “The one thing we can promise today is that this isn’t over. The campaign to free these men will go on growing until the justice that was so glaringly absent in this court today is done.”

V.Ships Shipmanagement managing director Bob Bishop said the guilty verdicts and the jailing of the two men was “a complete travesty” and an appeal would be lodged with South Korea’s supreme court within two weeks. In the meantime, the pair would have to serve their sentence in jail.

The appeal court in Daejeon jailed Capt Chawla for 18 months and fined him Won20m ($14,400) after finding him guilty on two charges related to the oil spill. The court said Capt Chawla should have gone full astern to drag anchor to prevent the collision with the drifting crane barge Samsung No 1, which had earlier broken its tow.

The court said the master should not have pumped inert gas into the tanker’s cargo holds because it increased the spillage of oil when the explosive risk was low. It added the Hebei Spirit should have been ballasted to create a 10 degree list, which would have prevented the oil spill, while three and a half hours to transfer oil between cargo tanks was too long.

Mr Chetan was sentenced to eight months in prison and fined Won10m after being criticised by the three appeal court judges. They said Mr Chetan should have been more vigilant and called the master by 0550 hrs. They also slammed Mr Chetan for pumping inert gas into the cargo holds and taking too long to transfer oil between the holds.

In what could be seen as a further insult, the appeal court slashed the prison terms for two of the tug captains directly involved in the incident. One captain had his jail term cut from three years to 30 months, while the other had his sentence reduced from one year to eight months.

The court also confirmed a Won30m fine on Samsung Heavy Industries, which owned the crane barge and tugs involved in the collision. The master of the barge, who was asleep until just before the collision occurred, and who was exonerated at the June hearing, was jailed for 18 months.

The accident occurred after the Samsung No 1 broke its tow and drifted in stormy conditions before colliding with the fully loaded 260,000 dwt Hebei Spirit, which was at anchor. The crane barge holed three of the vessel’s tanks spilling more than 10,500 tonnes of oil into the sea, which polluted a vast stretch of Korea’s west coast causing its worst environmental disaster.

A probe by Korean investigators has been strongly condemned by an expert witnesses as being biased against the tanker.

BIMCO, the world’s largest shipping organisation, warned that the custodial sentences and heavy fines send out a troubling message to the industry and to professional mariners worldwide.

“The verdict will do nothing to promote the image of the industry, when two senior officers, who have dealt professionally with a maritime emergency to the best of their abilities, end up in prison, with criminal records,” BIMCO said in a statement issued following the judgment.

“The organisation believes that the verdict, along with other cases where seafarers have faced criminal charges, emphasises an urgent need for international discussion on the fair treatment of seafarers.”

Intermanager general secretary Guy Morel said: “It is unacceptable that these two dedicated seafarers should be treated in this way. They have behaved professionally throughout this sorry affair and are being made scapegoats by South Korea.”

He added: “These men followed correct procedures and ensured lives were protected but have been unfairly criminalised as a result. We believe that the evidence against them was flawed and manipulated and we will campaign vigorously on their behalf to overturn this unfair decision.”

Intermanager is not alone in its views.

A statement on behalf of the vessel’s owners said: “All of the parties related to the Hebei Spirit are very disappointed, of course, and find the reasons given for the decision technically flawed — just like both of the Korea Maritime Safety Tribunal reports — and are considering our options.”

Independent tanker owners association Intertanko also expressed its disappointment.

“Intertanko expresses disappointment with the Korean authorities given all the efforts of owners, managers and the industry in general, which seem to have fallen on deaf ears,” said Peter Swift managing director of Intertanko.

Earlier this week Intertanko wrote to South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, saying that it hoped the court would “reach a fair and just decision”.

The Singapore Shipping Association said: “The SSA is very disappointed at the sentence meted out by the appeals court in Korea on the Master of the Hebei Spirit.

“This is despite the acquittal by their lower court and numerous protests from international shipping associations, including the Asian Shipowners Forum and Singapore Shipping Association. This is in clear violation of the principle set forth in the IMO guidelines on the Fair Treatment of Seafarers in the Event of a Maritime Accident.”

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