Thirty-five crew members of the detained US ship ‘Seaman Guard Ohio’ were arrested on Friday by Tamil Nadu police on several charges including possession of undeclared weapons in the vessel.
Later, they were produced before a magistrate who remanded all of them in judicial custody for 14 days. They are to be produced before the court on October 31.
The merchant vessel, an armed ship operated by a US maritime security company AdvanFort, was detained last Friday by the Coast Guard east of Tuticorin, around 600 km south of Chennai, for failing to produce papers authorising it to carry weapons and ammunition in Indian waters.
After their arrest, all the crew members were kept under police watch at Muthiapuram police station in Tuticorin under arrest. Local magistrate, Kathiravan visited the police station to conduct the remand proceedings.
The Q branch of the Tamil Nadu police arrested the crew members on charges of travelling without valid documents, possessing arms and ammunition and buying fuel from local fishing boats illegally. The ship is supposed to have taken 1500 liters of diesel from the local fishermen community.
The ship allegedly violated Arms Act and did not inform the Indian authorities of carrying 39 rifles, 4000 rounds of ammunition.
On questioning by officials of the Q branch as well as a central agency officials, they could not offer any “rational and logical answers”, sources said.
The crew and security guards include British, Estonian, Indian and Ukrainian nationals. Eight out of them are Indians.
No American national is said to be on board among the detained crew.
Earlier, a press release issued by the office of the Tamil Nadu director-general of police had stated that “two crew members were left for upkeep and maintenance of the vessel, till the company makes alternative arrangements for the ship’s maintenance”.
The arrests are likely to explode into a diplomatic row even as TV reports claimed the United Kingdom has sought consular access to its six nationals. Hindustan Times, however, couldn’t independently confirm this.
The press release further stated that a case has been registered in Tharuvaikulam Marine police station against the crew members and guards on board the vessel on the complaint of the assistant commandant of Indian Coast Guard, Tuticorin, on October 13.
The complaint included offences under the Arms Act, 1959, Essential Commodities Act, 1955, and Motor Spirit and High Speed Diesel (prevention of malpractices in supply and distribution order), 1990.
During the course of investigation, the release added, the ‘Q’ Branch CID seized 35 arms and about 5,680 ammunitions from the vessel.
The southern tip of India is close to major trading routes from Asia to Europe. Many cargo ships now travel with armed guards to deter pirates. Sri Lanka, close to Tuticorin, is a popular boarding point for private armed guards.
The ship was reportedly in Indian waters for three days before it was detected. According to the police, the crew broke several Indian laws and maintained no log of the arms on board.
Deputy National Security Adviser Nehchal Sandhu had earlier said he did not think that the detained ship was involved in gunrunning. He added that it is likely to be owned by a private maritime security company.
AdvanFort claims the ship entered the Indian waters to escape the fury of cyclone Phailin, which made landfall on India’s eastern coast (near Gopalpur in Ganjam district of Odisha) on Saturday. The vessel, however, was detected far from where the cyclone hit Odisha and Andhra Pradesh last weekend.
India is very sensitive about the presence of armed security guards on merchant ships after the shooting deaths of two fishermen by armed Italian marines last year in February. The marines were part of a military security team on a cargo ship when they fired at the fishermen, mistaking them for pirates. The two Italians are facing trial in India for the deaths.