Lessons from a floating armoury

The conviction of 35 crew members of a foreign vessel for illegal possession of arms and ammunition marks the end of a trial that threw little light on what exactly the ship was doing when it was seen anchored off Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu in October 2013. Those convicted, many of them nationals of Britain, Ukraine and Estonia, besides some Indians, were sentenced by a sessions court recently to five years’ rigorous imprisonment despite a vigorous defence that their vessel, m.v. Seaman Guard Ohio, was engaged in anti-piracy operations at sea and was looking for fuel and provisions while in distress. The Tamil Nadu Police, through the Q Branch-CID, may have obtained a conviction under the provisions of the Arms Act, but its investigation did not really determine whether the ship was engaged in something more suspicious than supplying armed manpower to merchant ships. Its charted course lay somewhere in the direction of the Maldives, but what it was doing on the eastern coast is not clear. The sentencing may be troubling for the countries involved, mainly because they may believe that their nationals were imprisoned in harsh conditions for six months and forced to stay in India while out on bail for two and a half years. Going by the detailed court verdict, neither Britain nor the other countries involved, including the U.S., to which the maritime security company owning the ship, Advanfort, belongs, nor the flag state, Sierra Leone, could really help them prove their innocence.

The court’s order is reasonably sound in legal principles. It records a finding that the ship was in Indian territorial waters; second, there was no official document to prove that the company was authorised to do its business in the U.S. or elsewhere. Its registration as a ‘utility boat’ in Sierra Leone contradicted its claim that it was a security vessel. The court ruled that no licence was produced to show that the armaments on board were legal. It rejected the defence of ‘innocent passage’ and noted that its log books did not disclose any distress. The strongest defence was that Section 45 of the Arms Act exempts arms on board a sea-going craft from prosecution if they are part of its ‘ordinary armaments’. However, the court did not agree that the huge cache of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, magazines and cartridges seized from it were part of its ‘ordinary armaments’. The matter will surely be taken on appeal to the higher courts. The case ought to be an eye-opener to all countries on the problem with private security agencies deploying floating armouries without adequate legal protection. The International Maritime Organisation has guidelines for Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel, but what happens when these norms clash with municipal law is an issue that the global maritime industry has to ponder over. This case underscores the need for states to resolve issues arising out of a key, but weakly regulated sector.

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