Family members of Captain Sunil James (38), who have been praying for his release from a prison in Togo, West Africa for a month now, suffered a setback yesterday, when they learnt that the local court there has rejected his release request, without offering so much as an explanation for the decision. James, who was manning a merchant ship, MT Ocean Centurion, that was attacked by pirates off the coast of West Africa, has been in prison for a month now. He was detained after he disembarked from the vessel to inform the local naval authorities about the pirate attack.
Back home, his worried wife has been running from pillar to post to draw the attention of authorities to the plight that her husband is facing on foreign soil. Speaking to MiD DAY, Aditi (32) said, “On Wednesday, we were informed that my husband was produced before the local court, where the judge said that he would have to stay in jail for some more time. All hell broke loose for us.”
“Since the past one month, I have been knocking on all possible doors, including the Director General of Shipping and the shipping company. I have even tried to contact local politicians, to get my husband back to India,” she said. Aditi said that her husband occasionally contacts her when he manages to borrow a cell phone from any of the other inmates. “I receive a missed call from him and I phone him back. I hardly get a few minutes to speak to him, but it is just enough for me to have a good idea of the pathetic living conditions in the prison.”
“My husband is lodged in an overcrowded cell, which has 80 inmates, instead of 20, which is the actual capacity. Two other crewmembers from the ship have also been detained in the same cell. The entire place stinks, as there is no proper sanitation. The locals do not speak any language other than French and Togo’s local language, making communication difficult. Only raw food and bread is served in the cell.
My husband has been surviving on bread for the past one month. He had fever and an infection in one eye, and the cell had no proper medical aide visiting. His condition is deteriorating, and I want him back as soon as possible,” said Aditi. This was the first pirate attack in James’s 15 year-long-career in sailing on merchant vessels. In the last week of April, James left Mumbai on a four-month contract with M/s Union Maritime, a UK- based shipping company. He flew to Lagos, Africa and took charge of the vessel MT Ocean Centurion docked there.
He was scheduled to return to India in August and had promised to stay home after this stint at home, with their newborn son Vivaan. “He had promised to celebrate our birthdays when he returned,” she recalled, adding, “I have decided not to allow my husband to sail in African waters again. I am exhausted, but I will fight till he returns home safe.”
On July 17, James phoned to say that he had been hospitalised after being attacked by some pirates, and that he had anchored the vessel at Lome, Togo. He phoned the next day to say that he had contacted his agents and company to get the matter sorted out, after the Togo naval authorities decided to detain him as part of their ongoing investigations on the pirate attack.
He was later produced before the court, where the judge informed him that since he was the master of the ship, he would have to be detained until the investigations were concluded. Meanwhile, his family members in India learnt that the local authorities have succeeded in arresting the pirates, some of whom are believed to be of Indian origin. This is partly why they are suspecting the involvement of the ship’s crew in the crime.
“I was pleased to learn that he was not held captive by the pirates, but on July 31, he phoned to say that the Naval authorities in Togo had detained him and two of his colleagues, after they were made to disembark from the ship. I was completely shaken. With no support and a newborn child to care for, I went to every possible place seeking help, but so far my efforts have not yielded any results,” she said. The family had decided not to deliver news of his detention to his ailing mother Anamma (75), but she learnt of it a few days back, and has since slipped into depression.
Aditi lamented that the local Indian Embassy officials in Togo have not done anything to effect his release from prison. One of them visited the jail and confirmed his name and his presence in the jail. Apart from appointing lawyers for her husband to fight the case in Togo courts, the authorities have not informed James or his family about the charges under which they have arrested him. “I am ready to even fly to Delhi to plead before senior bureaucrats and ministers from Ministry of External Affairs to get my husband back,” said Aditi.
The pirate attack
On July 16, pirates looted the chemical tanker and injured some of its crew off the coast of Togo. Gunmen in speedboats boarded the Marshall Islands-flagged MT Ocean Centurion tanker, around 45 nautical miles southeast of Togo’s coastal capital Lome, and grabbed money and possessions of the ship and its crew.
“On July 16, the robbers took two crew members and disembarked from the tanker with the rescue boat, taking along ship's cash, crew cash and personal belongings,” a report on IMB's website said. “The crew were released later. Three crew members were injured during the incident.”
Pirate activity has spiked in the Gulf of Guinea region, which includes Nigeria, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast and is a significant source of oil, cocoa and metals for world markets. But unlike along the Horn of Africa, international navies are not actively engaged in counter-piracy missions off West Africa. The regional increase in piracy over the last year has driven up shipping and insurance costs, discouraging investment.
Milind Deora, Minister of State for Shipping, said, “The DG of Shipping and the Ministry of External Affairs deal with such matters. I will check the status of the same and only then would be able to make any comment.”
The number of inmates in Sunil’s cell that should hold only 20