British MPs and campaigners have described an Indian court’s judgement sentencing 35 seafarers - including six Britons - to five years rigorous imprisonment as a “miscarriage of justice”, while their families have expressed shock and dismay.
On Monday, the district principal sessions court at Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu pronounced the judgement under the Arms Act against the personnel who were on the anti-piracy vessel MV Seaman Guard Ohio. The ship was intercepted by India’s Coast Guard with arms and ammunition on October 12, 2013.
Prime Minister David Cameron had taken up the issue with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi before the latter’s visit in November, while MPs too raised it in parliament. A petition on the issue was signed by over 300,000 people.
The six Britons are Billy Irving from Connel, Argyllshire, Nick Dunn from Northumberland, Ray Tindall of Chester, John Armstrong from Cumbria and Paul Towers and Nicholas Simpson, both from North Yorkshire. They have been jailed for arms and smuggling offences.
As MPs promised to keep working for their release and relatives of the jailed men criticised authorities for not doing enough, the Foreign Office said: “Our staff in India and the UK have been in close contact with all six men since their arrest to provide support to them and their families, including attending court.”
It added: “We recognise what a difficult time this is for those involved. There is now a 90-day window to appeal and we will continue to provide consular assistance. However, we cannot interfere in another country’s judicial process.”
Campaigners responded strongly to the judgement.
David Hammond, CEO of Human Rights at Sea, said: “(Noting) the case narrative to date and the competing and vested interests within India to be seen to take action…this appears to be a travesty of justice for the ordinary crew-members who we understand were not aware of instructions being passed down from the employer, and who were otherwise simply doing their job.”
Ken Peters of the Mission to Seafarers said: “These men are seafarers but it seems the court did not accept the basic fact that the ship was and is an anti-piracy vessel. The men carried arms in accordance with international maritime law for the purpose of ensuring the merchant fleet was protected properly from the very real risk of pirate attacks and hijack.”
Yvonne MacHugh, Billy Irving’s fiancée, who launched the petition on the issue, said: “I want to know what David Cameron is going to do - will he get these boys home or let these six ex-British soldiers, who gave so much to our country, spend five years in an Indian prison for something they didn’t do?”