In the early dawn, on December 7th, 2007, a fully laden VLCC, the Hebei Spirit was anchored in a designated (by the local Korean VTS authorities), when a run-away (due to a broken tow wire) Samsung crane barge – being towed by a Marine Spread (MS) of 2 tugs and an anchor-handling tug - smashed into the tanker, breaching 2 full cargo tanks and spilling around 10,500 tonnes of crude oil. The weather at the time was bad, with 3-4metre high waves and winds around Beaufort scale 6-7.
After the crew worked nearly 48 hours non-stop to minimize the spill, the Master (Capt. Jasprit Chawla) and Chief Officer (Syam Chetan) were interrogated for up to 12 hours a day, into the night and ultimately the Korean Prosecutor brought criminal charges against them for basically, not getting out of the way due to lack of proper watch-keeping and not doing enough to minimize the oil spill itself. Omitted were the charges that the C/O was first to notify the coastal authorities that a MS may be in trouble and coming too close to them; not only were the coastal authorities unaware of this situation, but they were unable to contact the MS via the emergency Channel 16 or any other normal maritime communications, except after some 20 minutes through the mobile telephone of one of the tug crew members.
And a trial followed.
On June 23rd, a Korean court found both officers innocent of all charges brought against them – but still the Prosecutor’s Office refused to let the 2 Indian officers leave the country.
Instead, the Prosecutor’s Office and Samsung filed an appeal. The Korean Maritime Safety Tribunal then rushed to finish their investigation (similar in content and points raised, as the Appeal submissions by the Prosecutor’s Office and Samsung), submitted to the Appeals Court as “evidence”, based on hindsight and assumptions, omitting circumstances such as gale force winds (Beaufort scale 6-7) and 3-4 metre waves. (see www.justiceforhebeispirit.blogspot.com for videos and details)
On December 10th, the Korean Appeals Court reversed the earlier verdict of innocent and sentenced the Master to 18 months jail and the Chief Officer to 8 months jail, plus some fines. Both officers were immediately handcuffed in the court and led, directly from the court, to jail.
To add insult to injury, 2 of the crew of the MS who had previously been sentenced at the first trial, had their sentences reduced?
We believe this is utterly disgraceful and a blemish on Korea’s maritime authorities and their maritime legal system. With the Samsung providing a quarter of the country’s GDP, it seems that political expediency rather than actual facts was involved in the KMST’s efforts in producing an investigation very strongly self-serving to Samsung and Korea.
This is legally, morally and ethically wrong and we call upon the industry as a whole to make their voices heard and join this petition to free the innocent Indian Master and Chief Officer and return to their families and normal life.
We fully support actions taken by the Indian Unions and other concerned maritime parties to boycott Korean ships, Korean products and especially Samsung products.
We agree with proposed action by Indian seafarers refusing to sail to Korea until both Capt Jasprit Chawla and Mr Syam Chetan have been released and returned to their families.
We challenge the Korean authorities to have this matter brought before any international maritime court, with experienced maritime judges to review this complete case of criminal charges against innocent seafarers – based on internal politics and corporate influence as opposed to substantiated, factual charges.