After spending 540 days in captivity, two Indian sailors finally saw the light of freedom on Thursday. The South Korean Supreme Court acquitted them in an oil spill case in that country.
They will return to India on Saturday, said an official of the National Union of Seafarers of India, who did not wish to be identified, as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
South Korean authorities had detained Captain Jasprit Chawla and his Chief Officer Syam Chetan after their ship, Merchant Vessel Hebei Spirit, a crude carrier carrying 2.6 lakh tonne of crude oil, collided with a Samsung-owned barge.
Chawla from Dehradun and the Chetan from Goa were sentenced to jail by a South Korean court.
On December 10, 2007 the Daeojon District Court had handed down an 18-month jail sentence to the two sailors. The court had also asked Chawla to pay Won 20 million (local currency) saying that he should have gone full astern to drag the anchor.
Chetan was sentenced to eight months in prison and fined Won 10 million. The court had said he should have been more vigilant.
Family of the sailors then moved the South Korean Supreme Court. In April, the court ordered a retrial of the case. The oil spill was caused in a freak accident when a towline of the crane towing two barges snapped due to a storm. One of the barges collided with Hebei Spirit, spilling 10,800 tonne oil in De John Port in Korea. This oil then reached the shores of Taean County, a fishing coastline.
The oil came ashore along South Korea’s west coast causing the country’s worst environmental disaster with economic losses estimated billions of Won. The worst affected area was a 375-km stretch around Taean County. The oil spill caused two deaths and affected the flora and fauna of the area. It also hit South Korean fishermen hard.
In New Delhi, Ministry of External Affairs welcomed the release of the two Indian sailors. “This verdict once again vindicates the position of the two Indian seafarers that there was no criminal negligence on their part in the accident involving their ship.”