The Anglican mission agency Mission to Seafarers has spoken of its delight at the acquittal of 35 sailors held in captivity in India on weapons charges. The Indian coast guard intercepted the anti-piracy vessel Seaman Guard Ohio in 2013 and detained its 35-strong crew for possession of what it claimed were illegal weapons. But the crew maintained that the vessel was in international waters and that the weapons were properly licensed by the British government to six former military personnel – known as the Chennai Six – for legitimate anti-piracy and security operations in the Indian Ocean.
The crew were originally acquitted of the charges but their passports were withheld and a subsequent prosecution followed, in which they were found guilty. Now the Court of Appeal has quashed that verdict. They were escorted out of the court room by British diplomatic staff, and the crew are expected to be free to leave India shortly.
Throughout the past four years, Mission to Seafarers has been supporting the crew and their families – support for which the Chennai Six were quick to acknowledge. “After four long years, we, along with the 29 crew of the Seaman Guard Ohio, have been cleared by the Appeal Court,” they said in a statement. “We want to thank the court for reaching this decision. We are all in good health and eager to return to our families and friends. Whilst we wait for permission to leave India and come home, we ask the media to respect our privacy and that of our families during this process.
“We want to thank our legal counsel, the [British] Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Mission to Seafarers for helping us reach this point. We have been glad to receive the many messages of support and care packages during our time in prison, and ask for time to reflect on our experience and to prepare for home.”
The Mission to Seafarers said it welcomed the Appeal Court’s decision. “Within 36 hours of the men being arrested, The Mission to Seafarers provided counselling, advice, and financial support around the clock to the men and their families,” they said “The Mission has provided and administered a legal fund to fight the men’s case, as well as paid for medical treatment for the Ukrainian Master’s terminal illness in partnership with the ITF Seafarers’ Trust. Our Regional Director in Dubai has regularly visited the prison and is on his way to commence an initial counselling session and help the men prepare for home.”
The mission’s Director of Advocacy, Ben Bailey, said last week after the verdict was delivered: “Today is a day that we have long campaigned for. Maritime security professionals provide an important service in protecting seafarers from piracy. What matters now is that the crew must be given space to be reunited with their loved ones, and the Mission will be supporting them through that process as we have from the start.
“We are liaising with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to make available a team of highly-trained counsellors, as well as arranging accommodation and flights home.
“The case of the Seaman Guard Ohio highlights once again the issue that millions of merchant seafarers often face when carrying out their everyday jobs. The criminalisation of seafarers remains a constant threat to those who are responsible for transporting over 90 per cent of world trade. It’s why The Mission to Seafarers provides a range of services to all ranks, nationalities and beliefs through its extensive global network of chaplains in more than 200 ports.”
The Chennai Six are Billy Irving, John Armstrong, Nicholas Simpson, Ray Tindall, Nick Dunn, and Paul Towers.