Berthed at the VOC Port in Tuticorin, where Coast Guard ships are docked, the M V Seaman Guard Ohio looks battered with communication equipment protruding out of its bridge. Moored for more than four years, the vessel is slowly decaying, taking water from its propeller side.
The fate of the ship, a floating armoury, and her crew, depends on the Madras high court which will pronounce its verdict on Monday. On October 11, 2013 the ship, owned by US-based anti-piracy firm AvantFort, was intercepted by Coast Guard ship Naikidevi off Kanyakumari based on intelligence received at the eastern headquarters. The 10 crew members, including eight Indians and two Ukrainians, besides 25 security guards, were handed over to Coast Guard, Navy, Customs, RAW and Q branch. The multi-agency investigation team recovered 35 semi-automatic rifles, 5,680 rounds of ammunition and communication equipment from the ship. The 25 guards included four Indians, six Britishers, 14 Estonians and one Ukrainian.
Initially, Taruvaikulam marine police in Tuticorin booked them but investigation was later entrusted with the Q branch. The crew and guards were charged for possessing weapons without proper permission and booked for procuring high-speed diesel secretly from locals, eight of whom were arrested.
On December 30, 2013, the Q branch filed a chargesheet against the sailors, but the Tuticorin court granted them bail saying it was not done within 60 days.
Over four years, the crew filed several bail pleas, but courts rejected them. But in a setback to the investigating agencies, the Madras high court in July 2014 dismissed criminal charges against the crew. The Q branch then moved Supreme Court which set aside the HC judgment and ordered the Tuticorin principal sessions court to rehear the case. After six-months, the court found all 35 onboard guilty and sentenced them to five years imprisonment. The eight locals, accused of supplying diesel, were acquitted. “Our investigation proved that the crew and its guards violated the Arms Act by trespassing into Indian waters with a huge cache of arms and ammunition,” said a senior Q branch official who was part of the investigation team.
Source: Hellenic Shipping News.