Croatian sailors who have been detained in Angola for months, accused of fuel theft from an offshore support vessel, have been set free.
According to the Croatian Seafarers Union, the sailors, Duško Jelača i Vanja Maričić, have now been released and cleared of all charges due to the lack of evidence.
“Before returning home, the seafarers must obtain the required paperwork and are expected to be able to return in a few days. The Union of Seafarers of Croatia contacted people who would help them get the necessary papers to return home as soon as possible,” the union said in a statement.
To remind, the Croatian, Filipino, Russian, and Ukrainian seafarers, who were serving on the Vanuatu-flagged vessel Sutton Tide, were accused of stealing 104 cubic meters of ship fuel the vessel, and were held in Soyo, Angola since March.
According to the Human Rights at Sea the detained crew comprised two Croatians, four Filipinos, one Ukrainian, and one Russian.
The Sutton Tide is a platform supply vessel owned by Sonatide, a joint venture between Tidewater and Sonangol, the national oil company of Angola.
The Croatian Seafarers’ Union initially did not provide any info on the rest of the crew. However, the union’s spokesperson later told Offshore Energy Today in an e-mail that “all members of the crew are set free of charges and will be released to go home.”
To remind, Nautilus, an international maritime union on Thursday said it was “profoundly concerned at the plight” of the crew, calling for action to end the ‘shocking’ ordeal of the crew as soon as possible.
According to Nautilus, the seafarers said they feared for their lives, and one has attempted to commit suicide.
The union’s General secretary Mark Dickinson Dickinson said there was ‘deeply disturbing’ evidence that the crew had been denied a wide range of fundamental human rights.
‘In particular, Nautilus is concerned by the evidence that the crew have not had the right to independent legal advice and representation and have not been given adequate information about the basis on which the investigation is being conducted,’ he wrote. ‘Also very disturbing are the complaints that crew members have been pressured to sign documents which were not in their own language and that their vessel was searched under duress, with no explanation or justification given to them.’
Timeline of the events
The Human Rights At Sea organization has shared a document detailing the crews’ ordeal and the timeline of the events up until June 5. Below is the timeline as shared by HRAS:
5 March 2017: the General Management of MV Sutton Tide receives a complaint from a crew member, alleging that on 1 March the Master, colluding with other crew members, illegal sold 104 cubic meters of diesel without the consent of the owners.
24 March: the MV Sutton Tide is boarded by 50 police officers in Soyo. The crew are removed from the vessel, and their passport s confiscated before being taken to a local hotel while the investigation continued.
25 March: a plain clothed police officer approaches the crew, and puts the crew under pressure to sign Portuguese documents that he claims are unimportant, but without giving the crew a chance to read them. However, the crew identify that the documents constitute a confession of criminal acts, and refuse to sign. After this discovery, the policeman leaves.
29 March: The local magistrates release a document authorising the return of the crew’s passports, and confirming that they are not under arrest. However, this document is not passed on to the crew of the MV Sutton Tide until 30 May 2017. In the meantime, the crew are not informed of the nature of the allegations against them.
27 March – 24 April: During this time crew members are frequently taken two at a time to the police station for additional statements. The crew members are often detained there for full or half days, often without being questioned, before being returned to the hotel. During this time, the crew notify their respective consulates, although the consulates are initially unable to make any progress with understanding the nature of the allegations.
7 April: Tidewater’s Area Officer contacts the crew to inform them that they are under criminal investigation for illegal fuel transfer, and as the alleged acts fall outside of their scope of employment, the company is not obliged to provide legal representation or to support their stay in the area during the investigation.
29 April: the crew are still detained at the hotel, with no information about the progress of their case, or when they may be released. In protest, two crew members begin a hunger strike.
4 May: A representative of the Ukrainian Embassy visits the crew, and is given evidence of their innocence. Specifically. Engine logbooks and reports signed by a third party: demonstrating that while the ship was working for 44 days in Angola, all the fuel tanks were checked and the volume reported. These checks were repeated a month later, and once again when the crew were initially detained, all without any evidence of wrongdoing.
5 May: The representative of the Ukrainian Embassy attends the prosecutor’s office. He presents the crew’s evidence, after which the prosecutor personally returns the passports to the crew in the hotel with the promise that after the testimony of the crew member who had accused the rest of the crew they would be free to leave.
14 May: Despite the promises of the prosecutor, the crew are still unable to leave the hotel. A Russian member of the crew allegedly attempted suicide by jumping from the top of a flight of stairs after drinking heavily. He was found unconscious in a pool of blood, and received medical attention from a nearby physician. At the same time, the crew were informed they had a fine of $600,000 to pay before the crew could be released, or else they faced a possible 8 year prison sentence. At the time of writing, neither claim has been formally justified.
18 May: a representative of the local tribunal hand delivers an invitation to attend court, but without a starting date for any proceedings. They provide documents
detailing the evidence against claims against the crew. However, these claims lack supporting evidence.
30 May: the crew are provided with evidence that the local magistrates authorised the return of their passports on 29 March, and that they were not formally under arrest. However, this information was not passed onto the crew.
5 June: the proceedings against the crew begin, and the crew attend court.
The full investigative report of the case released by HRAS can be seen here
Offshore Energy Today Staff