Master in Jail After Drugs Found in Cargo

Friday 31 August 2007 Lloyds List 
Master facing drugs trial slams charges as ‘a farce’      By Nigel Lowry

A VETERAN Croatian reefer master has highlighted the personal and professional indignity he and two shipmates are suffering after being thrown into a Greek jail when drugs were found stashed among thousands of boxes of bananas their vessel was carrying from Ecuador.  From Korydallos prison, where he has been held since mid-July, Captain Kristo Laptalo called the case against him and the other two crew members “a farce”.

In a brief telephone call to Lloyd’s List, Capt Laptalo said: “I am a seaman. I do not have a problem with the heat, or bad food or being in a small room. These are not things I cannot stand. But the awful thing is that at the age of 58 I am a prisoner when I should not be a prisoner. It is the indignity. ”

The master of the 1976-built reefership Coral Sea, together with Lithuanian first mate Konstantin Metelev and Filipino bosun Narciso Carcia, were arrested after 51.6 kilos of cocaine was found stashed in two boxes among more than 27,000 boxes of bananas that were unloaded at the Greek port of Aegion on July.

The discovery was made during a quality check carried out by the ship’s agent who notified the coastguard and police.  Although the Coral Sea had already been cleared to sail, Capt Laptalo said he voluntarily left the ship to inspect the suspect boxes himself just 10 minutes before the expected arrival of a pilot.

The Bahamas-flagged vessel remains under detention in Aegion. Its manager, Trireme Vessel Managemen of Antwerp, is said to be strongly supporting the men. Trireme managing director Kevin Bragg, who also heads a number of Bonita Bananas partner companies in Europe, was travelling yesterday but approved a pre-prepared statement. It concludes: “This is a problem which afflicts all companies involved in the banana trade from South and Central America.  No member of the crew could have known that the boxes containing the drugs would be unloaded in Aegion. Also, it would be impossible to introduce the drugs into the cargo while in the holds given the limited access to the holds and lack of space.”

Although they are confident the trio will eventually be acquitted, Greek lawyers have prepared them and their families for what could be a lengthy wait behind bars.

Stamatis Tzelepis of the Ioannis Iriotis law office, hired through the P&I club to handle the criminal defence of the three seafarers, said the first opportunity to seek bail again would be after September 17, with an investigating judge’s decision not likely until October.

He said the fight to have the men freed on bail would be “difficult”. Jailing of crew in drug cases was almost routine in Greece. “This is the mentality of the judges,” he said.

Mr Tzelepis said that even against this background of blanket charging of seafarers the Coral Sea case stood out.

“I personally have never seen such a case where there was absolutely no evidence before the judge. The big issue in this case is that when the ship left Ecuador the captain could not know the destination and therefore could have no plan to deliver any drugs.”

In his pleadings Capt Laptalo has said that the orders to call at Aegion were sent to him 13 days after the ship’s July 6 departure from Guayaquil.  Orders to unload 27,377 boxes at the Greek port came 17 days into the voyage.

Korydallos prison, on the outskirts of Athens, is a high security jail that has hosted some of Greece’s most notorious criminals, including dictator George Papadopoulos and urban terrorists.

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