As many as 35 crew members of US vessel MV Seaman Guard Ohio were sentenced to five years in jail on Monday by a Tutucorin district sessions court on charges of illegally possessing weapons and entering Indian waters without permission. However, lawyers representing the convicts have said they will challenge the order in the Madras high court after the Pongal holidays.
The crew members – eight of which are Indian, six British and 14 Estonian – will be shifted from Tuticorin jail to Puzhal central jail soon.
K Sivakumar, additional public prosecutor of Tuticorin district, told Hindustan Times that the judge sentenced all the 35 to five years in jail, and imposed a fine of Rs 3,000 on each of them. Though eight people were charged with supplying fuel to the ship harboured near Tuticorin port, they were acquitted.
The crew members of the ship – 10 sailors and 25 security guards – were formally arrested in December 2013.
The ship contained a huge quantity of arms and ammunition without valid papers or authorisation, Sivakumar said. “The Tamil Nadu government took a very strong stand and withstood all kinds of pressure to go easy on the convicts. The Madras high court even granted bail to them, but we challenged it successfully and ensured that they were nailed,” he added.
Sivakumar said that the Madras high court had rejected charges against the accused, forcing the prosecutors to move the Supreme Court. Fortunately, the apex court directed that the crew and security personnel be prosecuted in the district and sessions court.
The MV Seaman Guard Ohio, which flew the Sierra Leone flag, was found about 15 nautical miles from Tuticorin port in October 2013. It is owned by Advanfort, a US company that specialises in maritime security.
The district and sessions judge was not convinced by the crew members’ argument that the weapons were meant for self-defence against pirates. After individually questioning each of the 35 accused, the judge later pronounced them guilty.