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Diplomatic Row Over Romanian Stowaways

Ottawa, June 11 (RFE/RL) -- Romania, Canada and Taiwan are involved in serious legal wrangling in a Canadian court over the alleged murder of three Romanian stowaways on a Taiwanese container ship.

Two weeks ago, the "Maersk Dubai," a container ship owned by the Taiwanese government, arrived in the Atlantic coast Canadian port of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Within hours, several crew members jumped ship and claimed refugee status. They told Canadian officials a terrible story: they claimed that three Romanian stowaways had been tossed overboard by the ship's captain and other officers in the Atlantic, cast adrift on make-shift rafts of empty oil barrels.

Canadian authorities took their claims seriously. Romanians stowing away in containers from European destinations are an ongoing problem for Canada. Sergeant Bill Price of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- the RCMP, as it's called -- says there were 500 illegal stowaways who arrived in Canada aboard cargo ships last year, the majority of them from Eastern Europe -- "and, mostly from Romania."

The RCMP detained the "Dubai," which was also undertaking some repairs while in port. Finally, a specialized anti-terrorist squad from the RCMP boarded the vessel in Halifax harbor, after the Taiwanese captain refused to bring the ship into a dock. He and six other officers were arrested on murder warrants issued by the Romanian government.

The officers were brought before a Canadian court and bail was denied. While the seven were held in custody an international legal battle began. Canada worries about the arrests since the alleged murders took place in international waters over which it has no jurisdiction. Romania wants the alleged killers of three of its citizens brought to justice in Romania. The Taiwanese government, which owns the vessel, claims neither Canada nor Romania have any legal jurisdiction over the case and that the accused should face any charges in a court in Taiwan.

To further complicate matters, Canada has diplomatic ties -- and an extradition agreement -- with Romania -- but, since it has diplomatic relations with China, Canada does not recognize Taiwan.

After the bail hearing in the Halifax court -- where bail was denied and dates were set for an extradition hearing -- Taiwan demanded the release of the ship. The RCMP refused to do so until its investigation and one by Romanian authorities was completed. That happened at the end of last week.

Eugen Vasiliu, Romania's chief prosecutor, who came to Canada for the investigation, says evidence had been found on the "Dubai." He told a news conference that a watch belonging to one of the stowaways who was allegedly murdered was found in the cabin of one of the officers and that blood samples and clothing had also been recovered from the vessel. The RCMP said much the same.

However, now, Taiwanese officials are disputing this. A lawyer for the Taiwanese, James Connors, says in a letter to the Canadian prosecutor that Romanian lawyers "exaggerated the evidence seized" and "released misleading information to the media." He says that "in the absence of laboratory findings or other evidence no one has any business making misleading public statements about the case."

Prosecutor David Meadows says the Taiwanese officers "had no ill intentions and it's my understanding that they certainly intended no prejudice to the detainees; there was a language problem and a lack of understanding of our legal system and they have agreed not to release any more information to the press."

Refugee aid groups are speculating that the reason the stowaways were thrown overboard was to avoid recent tough Canadian fines for bringing illegals into the country. Any carrier bringing people in illegally faces fines of 7,500-dollars per person.

The seven Taiwanese officers are back in court a week from Thursday (June 20) and the date of their extradition hearing has been set for early September.