A nine-month ordeal of 16 Indian seafarers, detained in Equatorial Guinea and later in Nigeria, is over after the Nigerian navy released their ship on Sunday. MV Heroic Idun, the Norwegian vessel with the men on board, is now sailing to Cape Town in South Africa, from where they are expected to fly home on June 7.
In Kerala, it has been the end of harrowing wait for the families of three of the men, who were among those detained in the ship since August last year. Over the last several months, the families have knocked on the doors of the state and central governments, pleading for their release.
The vessel was on its way to pick up crude oil from Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria when it was stopped by a naval ship off Equatorial Guinea in international waters on August 12. It had 26 sailors, including 16 from India, on board. Others hailed from Sri Lanka, Philippines and Poland.
Nigerian authorities had alleged that the crew had stolen crude from their terminal. When a Navy patrol boat followed it, the M V Heroic Idun mistook it for sea pirates and did not stop. The ship sailed to Equatorial Guinea, but was intercepted there following an alert from Nigeria. In November last year, Guinea handed over the ship and its sailors to the custody of Nigerian authorities. They were charged with conspiracy, evasion of lawful interception, and unlawful export of crude oil.
On April 28, a federal court in Nigeria acquitted the sailors of all charges, but the release was delayed pending payment of a fine by the ship owner, Norway’s OSM Maritime Group, for unauthorised entry into Nigerian waters. Sources said that aspect was settled out of court since “the judicial process could have run into years”.
Sheethal Milton, the wife of one of the Indian sailors, Milton D’Couth, recalled the tumultuous nine months: “There was no regular communication. They were taken from one country to another. We would wake up every day expecting some positive news. Even though the court had acquitted them in April, anxiety about their release persisted.”
Ever since they were handed over to Nigerian authorities, the ship had been anchored off Bonny Port in the country. Said a source: “For the last six months, they lived under the custody of Nigerian navy personnel. Their mobile phones were seized and kept in a locker in the ship, with naval staff guarding it. Once in 15 days, the phones were given back and they were allowed to make three to five-minute calls to their families. The guarding naval staff insisted that the detained men speak only in English. They wanted to know what the men were telling their families.”
At Equatorial Guinea, the detained sailors had been shut in a congested room, and deprived of proper food and water, sources said. A few of them became sick while lodged in a detention camp for three weeks. Later, they were held in captivity in the ship, anchored at the Port of Luba in Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea.
“The allegation against the ship was that it had stolen crude oil from Nigeria. The opposition parties in Nigeria had made it a big issue, forcing their government to seek custody of the ship and its sailors. There was a plan to lodge the sailors in jail, but during the probe it became evident that their documents were valid and the voyage was legal. The sailors also fully cooperated with the investigation. This made the Nigerian authorities allow them to continue living in the ship. They also turned up in the court whenever the case was posted for hearing,” said a source.
In Kollam, Trivikraman Nair, the father of another sailor, Vijith V Nair, said, “The anxiety over their release really shattered us. But, the Indian High Commission in Abuja, Nigeria was helpful. The High Commissioner, G Balasubramanian, used to visit them on the ship and ensured all possible support for their release.”