Indian sailors return from Iran 4 years after getting clean chit in drugs case
While locals were hospitable, jail can be scary, say seafarers.
Five Indian merchant navy sailors, including two from the city, returned home on Friday after spending four years in Iran, where they were held in connection with a drugs case. They spent 400 days in prison, and despite a local court giving them an all-clear in March 2021, it took them two years to return home.
Cousins Aniket Yenpure (31) and Mandar Worlikar (28), both residents of Worli Koliwada, were the first to emerge from the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport around 2.38pm, where anxious relatives and friends welcomed them with hugs and fragrant garlands. Aniket’s aunt Shashikala held on to him from across the barricade in the arrivals section for 10 minutes, unable to contain her tears of joy.
The other sailors, Pranav Tiwari (23) from Patna, Naveen Singh (24) from Bageshwar, Uttarakhand, and Thamizh Selvan (25) from Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, emerged soon after. They were all welcomed by the Yenpures and Worlikars – the latter rolled out a traditional Koli feast for all, the highlight being an array of fish curries, at their residence.
The cousins’ fathers are currently on a pilgrimage to Shirdi. Shyam Yenpure, Aniket’s father, considers their return nothing short of a miracle. “Acquittal happens in only one or two percent of such cases. I owe a special thanks to Sai Baba for this year,” he said, on the phone.
Milind Worlikar, Mandar’s father, said, members of all five families had survived emotional, physical and financial strain in this period. “While I am happy now, I hope that there is some way to ensure other children with dreams of travelling the world do not go through what our children had to endure,” he said.
Aniket’s uncle Datta Yenpure said both cousins had steady jobs in a reputed Information Technology firm when they came across an advertisement for openings in merchant navy. They decided to apply and eventually joined the merchant navy in July 2019.
Their first sail itself became a challenge – the cargo ship carried an illegal load of narcotics. Only senior members of the crew and the captain were privy to the knowledge. Aniket however sniffed a stink when he learnt that cargo was being off-loaded in the middle of the sea. All five then decided to record what was happening onboard on their mobile phones – this later helped in proving their innocence.
Their ship was intercepted in February 2020 by Iranian naval officers and the entire crew was arrested. After spending 403 days in an Iranian prison, the five men were proven innocent in the local court at Chabahar, Balochistan, on March 9, 2021. However, there were diplomatic hurdles to overcome which resulted in their protracted stay.
In this time, they had to depend on locals in the province before they were able to get in touch with the India embassy.
The experience, said Pranav, has scarred their parents. “They don’t want me to look for another sailing assignment ever,” he said. But he is determined to pursue his career in the navy. “The locals there, even the prison guards, were very kind to us, especially when they learnt that we are from India. The cops even taught us rudimentary Persian for easy communication,” he said. Naveen added, “Even hardened criminals expressed sympathy towards us when they heard us speak in Hindi and learnt about our situation. We were not made to work like the others.”
“While they were all very nice to us, imprisonment itself is a scary proposition,” said Aniket. They were first quarantined for 14 days – a frightful as well as confusing time, with everyone clueless about what was to follow. “Additionally, we were stuck in a remote area, where the procedures were very slow. We were taken to the court once in three months, only to be issued a next date for hearing. Local lawyers put us in touch with Indian authorities, who sensitised us to protocol,” said Aniket.
Once out of quarantine, they were given a local phone card. “Prisoners who were released helped us get in touch with our families by connecting to us through their phones,” said Mandar.
Naveen, who had had spent only 20 days on the ship when he was arrested, said, “After being released, we were left to our own devices, as they had lost our passports and other important documents. Locals took us in – they provided us clothes and food.”
He is now looking forward to returning home and meeting his parents and wife – the couple married in 2018.