Something got lost in translating English ‘fair treatment of seafarers’ into Korean, in which language it apparently means “use any excuse to lock ’em up” or prehaps the South Korean courts were taking advice from their Stalinist siblings to the north on how to run a show trial. “Technically flawed” was the phrase used by the defense lawyers for Captain Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Shyam Chetan of the tanker Hebei Spirit, holed while at anchor by an errant barge. “Judicial incompetence” is another phrase that comes to mind: Those asked to adjudicate the case had neither the knowledge nor experience to pass judgement upon it.
Hebei Spirit was at anchor on 7th December when a barge carrying a crane came loose from its towing cable and slammed into the Hebei Spirit, holing it and causing leaks from its cargo tanks. An earlier, and more competent, court, found the officers of the Hebei Spirit innocent of fault.
That wasn’t the result the Korean government wanted so it detained Captain Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan until it could find a course more amenable to locking up innocent men. It found that court, and disgraced Korea.
To put in other terms, it is as if you had put your car in a parking lot, switched off the engine, and a passing car lost control and hit yours, causing you car’s gas tank to leak. Your fault? Of course not. It was your fault, according to the Korean judicial system.
According to the court, tankers are like motor cars. One just turns a key and the full power of the engine is instantly available for you to reverse out of trouble. Captain Chawla or Chief Officer Shyman simply had to immediately go full stern when they saw the barge coming – without actually knowing what was going on. They had to do that from a standing start.
Nobody, it seems, explained to their honors that damn great oil tankers don’t drive like Kia Prides.
Then Captin Chawla, in the court’s opinion, should not have concerned himself with ensuring that a highly inflammable cargo did not catch fire and the vessel and the crew be lost, causing even greater pollution, the loss of lives and the loss of the ship. He should not have inerted the tanks, which was, by any measure of common sense, the right thing to do.
Korea’s government, evidentally devoid of common sense, complained that a critical article in Lloyd’s List, which pointed out Korea’s obligations towards seafarers and the appalling and unjustice court decision “disgraced Korea”.
No, Korea disgraced itself, it dishonoured itself It put a court in judgement of issues with which it was not competent to deal and put pressure on that court to imprison innocent people.
If one acts disgracefully, as Korea has in this case, one has no excuse for complaining about being disgraced.
V-Ship’s comment on the imprisonment bears repeating:
Today’s decision by the Korean Appeal Court to find guilty the Master and Chief Officer of the ‘Hebei Spirit’, an anchored VLCC which was struck by a Samsung Crane Barge, will surely go down as one of the most disgraceful examples of a miscarriage of justice in a ‘supposedly’ advanced nation state. For Capt Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan to be sentenced to prison terms and lead from the court in handcuffs is a disgrace and insult to the whole shipping industry.
It is hardly surprising that the Indian seafarers’ unions are up in arms. No wonder the ITF and its international membership are questioning whether it is safe for its members to travel on ships to Korea. No wonder carriers are considering future calls at Korean Ports. Certainly ship owners will be reviewing their future shipbuilding orders in Korean yards.
Having found the ‘Hebei Spirit’ officers innocent of all charges at a court hearing on June 24 this year, it appeared to be an extraordinary decision made by the Korean prosecutor to go for appeal on such an open and shut case.
To then follow this decision by failing to allow the ‘Hebei Spirit’ officers to return home to their loved ones after 6 months held in Korea, was to compound the gross injustice that had been done and was despite assurances from V.Ships that the officers would return for any future hearings. The two officers have now been held in Korea, without the right to leave the country, for one year
As far as the appeal case itself is concerned, the reliance placed upon the Korean Maritime Safety Tribunal (KMST ) findings and conclusions, has resulted in technically flawed, unreliable and unjust evidence being submitted to the Daejeon District Court, the Court of Appeal, which returned its decision today.
In submitting their report, the KMST has demonstrated both its incompetence and an obvious desire to find fault with the officers of the Hebei Spirit. It is also a matter of fact that in compiling their report, the KMST has not complied with the IMO guidelines for consultation with other parties.
This blatant and totally unjustifiable case of criminalisation of a profession that we all rely upon for our international trade must not go unanswered by the international community and all those in the shipping industry.
We can only hope that the Authorities in Korea will take immediate steps to restore the country’s now tarnished image as a place where all who deal there can expect justice and respect of human rights.
The question raised by the V-Ships response to the Korean iniquity is whether the industry really does have the guts to respond appropriately, or to respond at all. It is not an industry noted for intestinal fortitude.
South Korea’s defence of its dishonourable behaviour, as published in Lloyd’s List, sadly makes it clear that its own arrogance will deny it the decency to put things right.
Occasionally there is talk of the reunification of North and South Korea. No reunification is required, South Korea has already adopted North Korea’s approach to human rights. It has little left to do but to change its name.
Kim Jong Il will be proud of them.