Bellingham, Washington; 29 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian sailors are complaining of rough and possibly illegal treatment by U.S. customs and immigration officials stationed at the Washington state ports of Bellingham, Seattle and Tacoma. All three ports are doing a growing business with the Russian Far East.
The sailors' grievances stem from several incidents in recent months at the three ports, which front on a 200-kilometer finger of the Pacific Ocean called Puget Sound. But these grievances have now escalated into a complaint by Russia filed with the U.S. State Department.
The common thread linking the incidents is the conduct of locally posted officers of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the INS. In Washington, D.C., a State Department official, who asked that he not be named, told Associated Press that "we are concerned about the allegations and looking into it." The official added that "if this in fact occurred, it is serious."
Washington state shipping interests consider the matter serious as well. Some of them are siding with the Russians with whom they do a booming business in renovating and refitting Russian fishing vessels with modern fishing technology, a specialty of the Puget Sound shipyards. In the last year alone, 25 Russian trawlers were repaired or converted to crab boats at a time when domestic contracts have been lagging.
The Washington yards are well aware that they are competing for the Russian business with shipyards in South Korea and Singapore -- thus their interest in helping Russia and the United States settle the current complaint. Patrick Jones, executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association, urged quick action by the U. S. to settle the grievances, adding that he hopes "the problem is overstated."
According to the chief Russian diplomat in Seattle, Consul General Georgi Vlaskin, the problem is not "overstated." He says, "Russian seamen are the objects of systematic prosecution by INS and customs authorities."
The complaint charges local INS officers with conducting illegal searches on fishing boats from the Russian Far East, which call at all three Puget Sound ports. It says Russian sailors have been rudely treated and, in some cases, forced to remain aboard ship for weeks at a time while repairs are made in American shipyards. Vlaskin says Russian companies find it less costly to keep crews with ships during overhaul rather than fly them home.
Support for the Russian position has come from at least one American ship-building firm doing business with the Russians -- Marine Construction and Design. The company's president, Peter Schmidt, told of an incident in 1995 when two Russian sailors defected while their fishing boat was undergoing $3.5 million worth of work. Schmidt said INS officials responded by forcing the remaining Russian sailors to remain on board and took away their passports until the ship's captain threatened to sail home.
That incident was not unusual, says Consul General Vlaskin. He tells of a case last fall when the INS detained crews of four visiting Russian vessels, holding 200 Russian passports until Vlaskin intervened. He called that detention "absolutely inhumane and unacceptable."
Local INS officials deny wrongdoing in the face of the growing marine business with Russia and what they describe as a "corresponding increase" in criminal activity by Russian sailors, including drug running and prostitution. Regional INS director Richard Smith says, "We're doing everything we can to make it work."
Smith says the INS is not singling out Russians for especially harsh treatment. He says Russian crew members often lack valid visas. Normally, he says, foreign crew members may stay for 29 days, but this, he acknowledges, is rarely enough time to complete work on their vessels. In that case, he says, the INS works with local shipping agents and shipyards to extend the sailors' visas.
But, Smith adds, when sailors "jump ship" to defect while in port, "corrective action" is required. This includes confiscating the passports and keeping the remaining sailors aboard ship.
The Russian complaint maintains that U.S. authorities conducted a raid In Bellingham without warning last September 10 on the Russian cargo ship Khorol. Consul General Vlaskin says that raid violated the Consular Convention between the U.S. and Russia, which requires giving advance notice.
But local INS director Richard Smith insists warnings are not required for searches of vessels suspected of carrying contraband or dealing in other criminal activity. He calls such searches "standard maritime practice" and promises that "we're going to do more of that."