Vijith, brother of Vismaya, whose suicide after months of domestic violence sparked outrage in Kerala last year, is also part of the Indian crew detained by the Equatorial Guinean navy since August 12.
“Please help us. Get us out of here,” is the message that Sunil Rathod, one of the 16-member crew of the oil tanker Heroic Idun, wants Indian authorities to listen to urgently. Sunil, a resident of Vijayapura in Karnataka, has been detained by the Equatoguinean Navy in West Africa since August 12 this year.
The Equatorial Guinea Navy seized Heroic Idun on August 12 on suspicion of violating maritime law and illegally entering the country’s territorial waters after a request from the Nigerian Navy, according to reports. The tanker was escorted to the port of Luba in Equatorial Guinea and later some crew members were forced to disembark the ship and taken to a detention area near the port by the navy.
Of the ship’s 26 crew, 16 are Indians, eight are Sri Lankans. Two others are Polish and Filipino nationals. “We have no idea what’s going on. We don’t have access to enough food or water. Of the 26 crew members, 15 of us were held offshore in a small space confined,” Sunil told TNM. They were taken to the Malabo detention center near the port on August 14 and held there for weeks before being taken back to the ship. Recently, they were returned to the detention center in detention
Fearing they would be taken to Nigeria for further investigation after being detained for nearly three months, Captain Tanuj Mehta said 15 crew members were again sent to Malabo detention centre. “We are not allowed to go out. This may be a step towards handing over the ship to Nigeria. The condition has worsened and anything can happen to us,” he said.
Vijith, brother of Vismaya, whose suicide after months of domestic violence sparked outrage in Kerala last year, is also among the Indian crew held in Equatorial Guinea. An anguished Vijith said he feared the ship would be handed over to Nigerian authorities. The crew suspects a Nigerian hand behind the immobilization of the ship. “A Nigerian navy ship has anchored near our ship and we don’t know what will happen to us. We want the Indian government to step in and save us,” he said.
He said the Equatorial Guinean Navy first told them they would be taken to a hotel: “They made us believe they were going to take us to a hotel and imprisoned us here. The army was deployed outside. I don’t know how long I’ll have the phone in my hand. They started checking our bags.
According to the Indian authorities, talks are underway and the safe return of the crew would be assured. OSM Group, which manages the vessel that was seized, released a statement on the incident in the meantime. “A fine was paid at the end of September against a promise to release the ship and its crew. However, the vessel and crew remain in captivity,” the statement said. It also said they have been informed that the vessel is being returned to Nigeria for further investigation.
It all started when the Marshall Islands flagship, Heroic Idun, sailed to the Nigerian oilfield to pick up a cargo of crude oil, as instructed by their charterer British Petroleum. Although the ship arrived on August 8, the delivery of the oil cargo was scheduled to take place on August 17. Sunil Rathod claims that as they waited for clearance at the Nigerian terminal at Akpo on August 8, a Nigerian ship approached them in the shadows.
“In the evening we were approached by an unidentifiable vessel which claimed to be part of the Nigerian Navy and wanted us to continue with them. However, as the craft’s automatic identification system (AIS) was turned off, the crew was unable to recognize it. Later we were informed that this was not the standard procedure of the Nigerian Navy. Even Akpo Port Security was unable to positively identify the Nigerian vessel,” he said.
The Heroic Idun’s crew believed the ship was a pirate ship because it had no identification, so they didn’t stop. “We drove away from the area at full speed for the safety of the crew. On August 9, we learned that the unidentified boat was in fact a Nigerian Navy vessel,” he added.