Indians onboard detained Iranian vessel call arrest 'a nightmare'

Updated: Jul 22, 2019, 08:31 IST | Suraj Ojha

Indian captain of ship caught in international crisis between London and Tehran on his and the crew's ordeal

Indians onboard detained Iranian vessel call arrest 'a nightmare'
Crew members walk down a ladder onboard supertanker Grace 1 off the coast of Gibraltar on July 6. Pic/AFP

Rising US-Iran tensions have suspended the fate of 24 Indian crew members, including its captain, on the Iranian-owned vessel Grace 1 that was seized by Gibraltar police on July 4. Gibraltar Supreme Court this week announced a one-month extension in the detention of the vessel that has three Mumbai natives on board. The entire crew stuck on the ship has had a harrowing time for the past couple of weeks, its captain told mid-day.

Along with the chief officer of the vessel, I was arrested on July 11 from the vessel. We were kept in an enclosed cell for around 36 hours. It was a horrible experience and I will not forget what happened here with me and my colleagues," the captain recalled. The vessel was detained on suspicion of carrying crude oil to Syria. "It was boarded by UK Navy and Gibraltar police and a full search was carried out. All crew was interviewed, personal and ship computers, hard drives and personal phones were seized too," the captain told mid-day.

Also Read: Indians among 23 crew members of British-flagged oil tanker seized by Iran

A ship approaches supertanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar coast on July 6 after it was detained. Pic/AFP
A ship approaches supertanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar coast on July 6 after it was detained. Pic/AFP

The captain and chief officer were released on bail on July 12, to expire on August 23. "We have been kept in a hotel now. Two second officers were arrested on July 12 and after questioning, were returned to the ship the same day on bail till August 8," he added.

The chief officer of the ship narrated the events of July 4, "I was on deck with my colleagues early morning when I spotted a helicopter. I guessed it to be a drill by local cops but later found some commandos alighting on our vessel's wing and warned us "not to move." They were heavily equipped with arms and ammunition and took us to the crew room." The commandos soon began search operations and "broke the locks of our cupboard, drawers and seized our laptops, documents and mobile phones."

Also Read: After Iran seizes oil tanker, UK asks ships to avoid Hormuz Strait

No light in sight

With prisons that barely had the basic logistics in place, the detained officers had nothing short of "a nightmare" during their arrest. "We are in touch with the London-based Indian High Commission but don't know when we will be released. The local seafarers union has sponsored our stay in the hotel but we have to buy our own food," the captain added.

Meanwhile, wife of the second officer on the vessel, who was arrested too, has been worried for him. "I used to get daily updates from my husband about where and how he was. I used to track his ship through the online ship tracking site too. When I called him on July 4, he told me that his ship was detained and that he would update me later. I have three kids and they have been asking me when they can speak to their father," she said.

"I have been running from pillar to post seeking help from everybody, and now there is news of the ship being detained further for another 30 days with an order from the Gibraltar Supreme Court," she added. While the officers now living in a hotel, the rest of the crew continues to be detained on the vessel, the captain said.

Sequence of events

On 4 July, Grace 1 was detained in Gibraltar in the early morning hours, Gibraltar police and Royal Marines boarded the ship and detained Grace 1 and its 28-member crew which includes a Pakistani national and three Ukrainians.

Chief Minister of Her Majesty's Government of Gibraltar said in a statement that the government had "reasonable grounds" for detaining the tanker, including the belief that the tanker was carrying its cargo of crude oil to Syria's Baniyas Refinery, in breach of EU sanctions. (It is a policy of the European Union to intervene when necessary to prevent conflict or respond to emerging or actual crises).

On 5 July, advisor to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamanei tweeted, "If Britain does not release the Iranian oil tanker, it is the authorities' duty to seize a British oil tanker." Spain's foreign minister Josep Borrell reportedly claimed that Gibraltar detained Grace 1 following a US request to Britain. Replying to the controversial allegation, Gibraltar said, "There has been no political request at any time from any government that the Gibraltar government should act or not act, on one basis or another." Gibraltar Supreme Court on July 5 ordered extension of Grace 1's detention by 14 days citing "reasonable grounds" and compliance with EU sanctions against Syria.
On July 19, the court extended detention by another 30 days.

19 July
Day when detention was extended by one month

Also Read: 18 Indians aboard tanker seized by Iran

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