2 years after arrest, days after return, govt offers help to ex-Navy officer

Oct 13, 2016, 18:49 IST | Suraj Ojha

Former chief petty officer in the Navy was arrested in July 2014 for trespassing into Nigerian waters and crude oil theft while aboard a merchant vessel, but MHA pushes his case after he returns from the horrifying ordeal

Too little, too late. The Indian government’s delayed response to his worst nightmare has left Pradeep Sharma, a former naval officer, embittered and flummoxed. The 53-year-old resident of Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, was arrested over two years ago while aboard a merchant vessel with 15 other crew members, including 10 Indians, for trespassing into Nigerian waters and oil theft. With that began the crew’s harsh struggle for freedom, food and fundraising.

Sharma and his family claim that they wrote several letters to the central and state governments since his arrest, pleading for help. The Indian Embassy in Nigeria allegedly offered no help, forcing the family to raise funds for his trial on foreign soil on its own. Sharma was finally acquitted of all charges, along with the rest of the crew, on June 30 this year, and returned home on July 3.

The Indian government responded — allegedly for the first time — through a letter addressed to the Maharashtra chief secretary, signed by Pramod Kumar, undersecretary of the ministry of home affairs, only on July 5. The letter requested the chief secretary to look into the “petition” and initiate appropriate action. A copy of the letter was marked to Sharma’s son, Anshul.

From Navy to merchant vessels
Sharma had served in the Navy as a chief petty officer (a non-commissioned rank) for 24 years, with even a posting in the Western Naval Command headquarters in Mumbai at one point.

Post retirement in 2008, he began working on merchant ships. In 2013, he was recruited through a crew manning agency — Genesis Forte India Pvt Ltd in CBD Belapur — by Ghana-based Indian-owned Saroj Shipping Company as the third engineer (the third most senior engineer on board) of vessel MT (motor tanker) Maro. MT Maro was to be taken to Cameroon in West Africa to be dismantled and disposed of. The vessel had a crew of 16, including 11 Indians.

Engine breaks down
On October 22 that year, he was flown to Accra in Ghana, and set sail aboard MT Maro from Tema, 25 km from Accra on the Atlantic coast of Ghana, on July 16, 2014. The vessel’s engine reportedly broke down in international waters near Nigeria soon after departure. The crew repaired the engine. No soon had the vessel set sail again than its engine broke down again. The crew anchored the ship, reportedly still in international waters, and relayed the situation to the ship manager in Tema.

Arrested in Nigeria
In the meanwhile, a Nigerian naval patrol team spotted the vessel, and tried to approach it. It was, however, unable to communicate or get aboard MT Maro owing to rough weather. Suspecting that the vessel had pirates, the patrol team fired two to three rounds of warning shots at it.

The next day, the Nigerian Navy took MT Maro’s captain into custody for questioning. The captain returned a day later, but the crew was detained by the navy and taken to Brass, a port in Bayelsa, southern Nigeria. According to Sharma, the crew was assured that the detention was only customary, and that it would be released the same evening. Instead, the crew was thrown into the naval prison.

On July 18, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, a paramilitary agency of the Nigerian government, took over the case, and slapped the crew with a fine of 1.5 million naira (around R3.18 lakh as per today’s exchange rate) for trespassing into its waters. Seven days later, the case was transferred to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, a Nigerian law enforcement agency that investigates financial crimes, which charged the crew with oil theft, besides travelling without the relevant documents.

From behind bars, the crew managed to highlight its plight before human rights agencies. Pressed by human rights activists, the Nigerian authorities finally produced the crew before the Okaka prison court in Yenagoa, Bayelsa, on October 27, and the trial began. The case was transferred to Afokang court in Calabar after the trial judge was transferred there in November 2015.

No help from Embassy
Sharma claims that in their time of agony, the crew approached all relevant authorities, including the Indian Embassy, but received little help. “Officials from the Embassy visited us in the initial days. But later, there was no such visit. We were left to ourselves to even find a lawyer to represent us. My family wrote letters to several authorities in state and central governments, none of whom responded.”

Initially, Saroj Shipping Company paid for a lawyer for the crew, but failed to make later payments. With his legal fees gone, the lawyer refused to represent the crew. After hearing of the crew’s plight, Nigeria-based Indian-owned Sterling Group Companies, which has an office in Mumbai, helped arrange for another lawyer on humanitarian grounds.

The court found the crew innocent of all charges, and freed it on June 30.

Sharma alleges that after the trial ended, Indian Embassy authorities swooped in to take credit and provide help to the 11 Indians. “They offered to buy our tickets for the flights back home. They provided us with emergency certificates in lieu of our passports (which had been lost in the interim). I was told that the authorities would receive us at the Delhi airport, but we were, instead, questioned for five hours there. Later, I managed to arrange for money to reach Mumbai.”

Sharma says since the family had to raise funds for the trial on its own, he is now being crushed under a R5-lakh debt burden. “My son had to take up a job at a call centre and my wife was hospitalised for depression.”

In the initial days, Genesis Forte India Pvt Ltd in Navi Mumbai tried to help out the Sharma family, but its office has allegedly been shut since December-end last year.

The letter the family received after Sharma’s return was the last straw that broke its patience.

mid-day reached out to the MoS and the spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs for comments. There was no response.

Govt of little use

Manoj Yadav
Secretary, Forward Seamen’s Union of India

In such cases [of detention in international waters], neither the government nor the Indian Embassy comes to the crews’ rescue. Sailors have to seek help from private parties. Such crew members’ chances of landing future contracts are ruined even after they are acquitted of charges and released from jail. The government should think of ways to rehabilitate such sailors.

Offered R800 a month

The detained crew was allegedly kept in 14X14-sqft prison barracks with around 50 other inmates in each. All of them had to share one toilet. "We were given noodles, rice and dried bread to eat in jail. Beef soup was served, but we never consumed it,” says Sharma.

He claims that the Indian Embassy promised to give each Indian crew member 4,000 naira (around R800) every month. "But the money wasn’t enough to source our own food. The food provided to us was so stale and unhygienic that it could not be eaten.”

Sharma says the Indian Embassy provided them with a change of undergarments and shirt/T-shirt only 16 months after their arrest.

Friend still stuck in Nigeria
Sharma alleges that a friend and Captain of MT Akshaya, Shailesh Singh, hailing from Punjab, has been languishing in a Nigerian jail since November 25, 2012. A Nigerian court sentenced him to 15 years of imprisonment for theft of crude oil while working on the vessel. He was arrested with 10 other Indian crew members. Singh has claimed he’s innocence, and that he, too, is being forced to pay his advocate’s fees on his own.

1.5 mn naira
Fine levied on each crew member (around R3.18 lakh)

Rs 5L
Pradeep Sharma's debts

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