‘Data in Voyage Data Recorder on board the vessel erased'

The South Asian Fishermen Fraternity has alleged serious deficiencies in the investigation conducted by Kerala Police and the Mercantile Marine Department into the killing of two fishermen by the naval guards of the Italian ship Enrica Lexie on February 15.

In a statement issued here on Saturday, fraternity general secretary Fr. Churchil said the recent revelation that the data contained in the Voyage Data Recorder on board the vessel had been erased by those on board was just one instance of the serious errors and lapses on the part of the investigating agencies.

Mudslinging had already commenced between the two agencies investigating the case and successful prosecution of the marines would not happen. There was also the likelihood of the ship sailing out without paying any compensation.

“Before the High Court, the ship owners are now attempting to disassociate themselves from the naval marines by stating that they are not liable for the actions of the marines who are under the Italian government. The naval marines, on the other hand, are contending that they are on sovereign duty on the vessel and the Indian law and courts cannot try them,” he said.

However, it was a settled principle of maritime law that for all offences involving a vessel, the master/captain of the vessel, being the supreme authority on board the ship, was directly answerable and liable. In all incidents causing death involving ships, the captain was as invariably arrayed as an accused. But right from the beginning, the police had decided to confine the case to the two marines, Fr. Churchil said.

The investigating agency further made the huge error of not conducting search and seizure immediately after the incident, thus giving much time for those on board to tamper with the evidence. Finally, when they did search the vessel, they failed to seize the most crucial evidences on board.

The Mercantile Marine Department, which had the expertise to advise the police on the equipment and documents to be seized apparently, did not assist the police. The result was that crucial objects of evidentiary value such as the log book of the ship — the absence of which would seriously prejudice the criminal prosecution — was not seized.

It was settled by various cases under Indian laws that no criminal trial involving a ship could be sustained without production of the log book maintained on board the said ship. Similarly, nothing was known about the seizure of the crucial on-board equipment or systems, Voyage Chart, Voyage Data Recorder, Electronic Chart Display and Information System, Voyage Plan, Voyage Plotter, Automatic Identification System, G.M.D.S.S., Automatic Radar Plotting Aid, and Radar data. Without seizure of these crucial materials, the criminal trial was bound to fail.

The general secretary said the investigating agencies could still get hold of some of the evidence and take the captain into custody if evidence had been tampered with. The serious errors already committed by the police and the investigating agencies would also detrimentally affect the claim preferred by the relatives of the deceased fishermen.

In a memorandum to Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, Fr. Churchil demanded that the Chief Minister take the initiative to settle the civil suit for compensation to the families of the fishermen outside the court. Representing the case of next of kin of Ajeesh Pink, Fr. Churchil said the poor fishermen's families would otherwise have to wait for years to get the compensation.