InterManager, the international trade association for in-house and third party ship managers, has condemned the decision by South Korean appeal court judges to jail the Master and Chief Engineer of the Hebei Spirit.
Guy Morel, General Secretary of InterManager, slammed the retrial decision, which comes after the pair were found innocent of the same charges by a South Korean court in June this year. “It is unacceptable that these two dedicated seafarers should be treated in this way,” Mr Morel said. “They have behaved professionally throughout this sorry affair and are being made scapegoats by South Korea.”
According to early breaking wire reports, the master, Jasprit Chawla, was sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined Won20m ($14,000) dollars) while the chief officer, Syam Chetan was sentenced to eight months and fined Won10m. There was, however, some confusion as wire reports quoted the Yonhap news agency as saying that the Master was jailed for one year. The ship’s owner, Hong Kong-registered Hebei Ocean Shipping, was fined Won30m.
InterManager, whose members represent a worldwide fleet of some 2,500 vessels and more than 100,000 crew, believes the plight of the Hebei Spirit pair has already had a detrimental effect on recruitment at a time when seafarers are in short supply. “How can we encourage young people to take up a career in shipping when they see experienced and innocent crew criminalised in this way,” said Mr Morel.
“These men followed correct procedures and ensured lives were protected but have been unfairly criminalised as a result. We believe that the evidence against them was flawed and manipulated and we will campaign vigorously on their behalf to overturn this unfair decision.”
He said the imprisoned officers and their families were at the forefront of the industry’s thoughts on this sad day “and we understand the tragedy that they are now living, unfairly. This is a tragedy for the whole industry. These officers are the crew of one of our members and they are men who are suffering unfairly.”
The 1993-built Hebei Spirit was at anchor waiting for a berth when a crane barge broke its tow in stormy weather and smashed into her side, holing three cargo tanks. About 10,500 tonnes of oil spilled into the sea, causing Korea’s largest ever oil spill. Two South Korean tug masters were jailed for their part in the incident but the two Hebei Spirit officers, Indian nationals Capt Jasprit Chawla and Mr Syam Chetan, were cleared of all charges on June 23rd. However, they have since been prevented from leaving South Korea, pending this retrial.
The two men have received support not just from their shipmanagement company, V.Ships, but also from other seafarers in messages and telephone calls. Capt Chawla, who has 17 years of exemplary seafaring service, said during his enforced stay in Korea that he felt he had done nothing wrong.