NATIONAL

Outrage over sentencing of seamen in South Korea gathers storm

SEEKING JUSTICE: Shipping organisations stage a protest in Mumbai on Tuesday against the jail sentence awarded by a South Korean court to two Indian officers of a crude carrier for alleged culpability in an oil spill.

SEEKING JUSTICE: Shipping organisations stage a protest in Mumbai on Tuesday against the jail sentence awarded by a South Korean court to two Indian officers of a crude carrier for alleged culpability in an oil spill.   | Photo Credit: — Photo: Paul Noronha

Rahi Gaikwad

Mumbai: The shipping fraternity in India has stepped up its campaign over the sentencing of two Indian seamen in South Korea in connection with an oil spill in Korean waters. Angry protesters gathered at the Azad Maidan here on Tuesday and pledged to boycott Korean products, especially from Samsung, headquartered in Seoul, South Korea.

Captain Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan of Hebei Spirit, a very large crude carrier managed by V. Ships, were on December 10, 2008, sentenced to jail for 18 months and eight months respectively by the Daejeon district court in South Korea. In addition, Mr. Chawla was fined thousands of U.S. dollars.

This judgment reversed the earlier order of a lower court, which exonerated the two officers. The spilling accident took place on December 7, 2007, near the Port of Daesan on the Yellow Sea coast off Taean County.

According to the press note by the Indian Seafarers Federation (ISF) and media reports, Hebei Spirit, carrying 2,60,000 tonnes of crude oil, was anchored when a free-floating barge owned by Samsung collided with the ship and punctured it. Some “10,800 tonnes of oil” was leaked along the coast, causing massive pollution and affecting the livelihoods of fishing communities.

Shipping and maritime organisations across the board contend that the two officers were not to be blamed for the spillage. On the contrary, their efforts saved lives and prevented the tanker from exploding. The ISF has termed the judgment an “example of criminalisation of seafarers for discharging their duties.”

Decrying the judgment, Abdulgani Y. Serang, general secretary of National Union of Seafarers (NUSI), said the inquiry report of the Korean maritime authorities was an “attempt to implicate the seafarers.” At a press conference here on Tuesday, he also cited instances of alleged manipulation by Samsung.

Forlorn families

The families of Mr. Chawla and Mr. Chetan are also fighting a tough battle against a powerful nation and corporation. The judgment comes as a crushing blow to them as they were all set to celebrate the earlier acquittal.

“I am the saddest and most distressed father of Syam Chetan,” said his father Commodore (retd.) D.R. Syam, Indian Navy. He said his family had not seen their son for the past 14 months. “I was in touch with my son ever since he was first detained. He used to tell me justice will prevail. When he was acquitted, he even told us the flight details for his return journey. However, the new judgment is highly biased; it is a miscarriage of justice. Since December 10, I have not been able to speak to my son,” he said.

Gurpreet, Mr. Chawla’s wife, is a picture of despair. With two children back home in Dehradun, this fight for justice is a protracted ordeal for her. “In between, I had gone to meet him in Korea. We were very hopeful. Shipping experts all over the world have condemned this decision. My husband cannot even get bail. The court was biased against us. We were not given enough time to present our case. The witnesses were only from the Korean side. One Korean witness told us that he would speak in our favour. The next we heard was he had lost his job. We ignored all these limitations as we were sure of our innocence,” she said.

Commodore (retd.) D.R. Syam said though the seamen were given the best legal aid, all the proceedings were in Korean and one did not know what was being said. He said the families had received support from the Indian government. “At the diplomatic level, the External Affairs Ministry has summoned the South Korean ambassador thrice. This is the utmost it can do. However, it has been to no avail. We would therefore request the government to step up their act.”

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