Lawyers try to secure grieving father's release in Togo court

Published: 06 December, 2013 07:03 IST | Vinod Kumar Menon |

Even as his family members despaired back home, lawyers representing sailor Sunil James detained in Togo deliberated in court for long hours in a last-ditch attempt to secure him a trip to Mumbai to perform the last rites for his son

“All we want to ask the Union Government and the honorable elected representative is: Why must a person die, before any action is taken in India?” These angry words were spoken by Rakesh Madappa, brother-in-law of Captain Sunil James, who has been detained in the distant shores of Togo for months now, as the West African country’s authorities take their time to investigate the pirate attack on his ship MT Ocean Centurion.

Vivaan with his mother Aditi

Meanwhile, his 11-month-old son’s body lies in the mortuary, awaiting last rites. Even as court proceedings continued late into the evening in Togo, his family is holding on to the last traces of hope that their beloved kin will return. “For almost six months, my sister Aditi has been knocking the door to every possible department and minister’s office, seeking the release of her husband Sunil James from Togo, but her plea went unheard.

And now for the past four days, the family has been mourning the death of Vivaan, as he lies in the Cooper hospital mortuary. And yet, Sunil is being denied his chance to bid a final farewell to his infant son,” said Rakesh. Rakesh (33) struggled to keep his emotions in check as he spoke to MiD DAY: “Vivaan was born on December 12, 2012 – almost a year ago, but just short of it. 

Sunil’s son lived for 11 months and 20 days. Of this, Sunil spent less than four months with him, after which he set sail with a promise to be back by Vivaan’s first birthday. That never happened. His ship was attacked by pirates, followed by detention perpetrated by the Togolese authorities. Dreams of coming back for Vivaan’s first birthday have now been replaced by morbid thoughts of whether or not he will be able to come back to India in time for his baby’s funeral. The question is, will he be able to say goodbye one last time? These are questions that I can’t answer, unfortunately.”

“We put our faith in the Indian Government, the Ministry of External Affairs, the Directorate General Of Shipping India and all our other elected representatives whom we thought would make a difference to us. I am sure I am not alone when I say this. All of them failed my family, failed Sunil, his wife and his only son. This isn’t news. Millions of people are let down in India every single day.

Why should this be any different, right? Why does someone always, absolutely always, have to die in this great land before action is taken?” asked an exasperated Rakesh, adding, “Since December 2 - the day Vivaan succumbed to septicaemia - we have contacted numerous authorities asking that they help uphold basic human rights.

First plea rejected
Speaking to MiD DAY, a senior official from the Indian High Commission in Ghana said, “On Thursday morning, when the court had opened, the plea to release the three Indian crewmembers was put forward by the Togo lawyers, citing the demise of Sunil James’ son; however the court refused to release them on the grounds that if released, they won’t return to Togo.

” The lawyers once again moved a petition before the court requesting them to at least release James, and the meeting with the court went on till late evening, the officer said. Asked about the delay, the officer said, “The matter is pending before the judiciary and only the court can give a final say, we can only wait and watch.”

Fresh twist
According to a senior official attached to the Director General of Shipping, the Togo authorities have suspected the potential involvement of the said three Indian crewmembers of MT Ocean Centurion – Captain Sunil James, chief officer Peechuli Chandran Ashok, third engineer Andi Vijayan. It is learnt that the Togo Navy has captured some members of the pirate group, and some of them are found to be of Indian nationality. The Togo Navy has conducted investigations into this incident and has furnished its inquiry report to the court of Togo, which had ordered an inquiry into the incident.

Speaking to MiD DAY, a senior Indian High Commission official added, “The Togo investigating agency has arrested 11 people, including the three crewmembers. Of this 11, six suspected pirates are from Kerala, and two are local Togo nationals.” The entire case against the crewmembers is predicated upon circumstantial evidence.

The officer said, “One of the six arrested Indians, identified as Arun, shares the same surname and parents’ name of Peechuli Chandran Ashok, the chief officer. The investigators suspected both Ashok and Arun to be related and they suspect that the entire attack was pre-planned. And to prove their claim, they also have a statement to establish that it was on the instruction of Captain Sunil James that the vessel engine was switched off and the pirates allowed to board the vessel.”

The investigators have also alleged that the six Keralities came to Togo two weeks before the vessel reached Togo waters, and with the help of two Togo nationals they took a small boat and ventured into the sea, where they allegedly attacked the vessel. The official even clarified that the crewmembers are in the custody of local Togo police but have been kept in an accommodation, and not in jail. The distance between the Indian High Commission in Ghana and the accommodation takes eight hours to travel, and the crewmembers have been pleading their innocence in the entire episode.

Bhuwanesh Dogra, Technical Manager, Union Maritime (ship owners) from the United Kingdom rubbished the role of any of the crew with the pirates. He said, “We trust our employees and hence we are doing everything possible to set them free by giving them legal aid and other assistance in Togo.”

Indian High Commission in Ghana writes to Aditi
In a mail to Sunil’s wife Aditi, Satish Sakleshpur, the second secretary at the Indian High Commission in Ghana stated: “The matter was immediately taken up with the Togolese authorities for release of Captain Sunil James on compassionate grounds. We are also in regular touch with the lawyer representing Capt Sunil James and are following the progress of the case.

The Charge d’Affaires of Embassy of Togo in Accra has also been briefed about the developments. He is also in touch with the concerned authorities in Togo and is working towards an early resolution of the matter. We deeply regret the untimely demise of the son of Capt Sunil James. We shall make all possible efforts to secure early release of Capt Sunil James so that he can travel to India soon.”

The Ministry of Shipping coordinates such cases actively with the Ministry of External Affairs, and in this case purely on sympathetic ground, the Ministry of Shipping through Director General of Shipping is exploring whether the shipping company with whom Sunil James was employed, could provide any undertaking to the Togo court and permit him to visit India to complete the last rights of his son and return to Togo for the case to be completed.
- Milind Deora, Mumbai MP and Minister of State for Shipping

We are open for this suggestion and are even ready to take any liability and furnish a bond so Sunil James can be released for a short period so that he could do the last rites of his son and then return to Togo, but we can do this only when our lawyers in Togo put across such a request.
-Captain Nilesh Gandhi, (Head Fleet Personnel) Accord Marine (the company that owns the ship)

The Joint Director Shipping has once again taken up the matter with the said technical managers of the vessel, who have referred the said poignant development to the court in Togo, apprising about the death of the infant, with a request to secure the presence, on bail/parole/under due judicial process of Captain Sunil James in Mumbai at least for the last rites of his son. The Indian mission there has already moved the Togo Foreign Ministry in Lome, as well as Togo High Commission to Ghana.
- Senior official from Director General of Shipping

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