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Russia/Ukraine: Crew Trapped On Vessel In Bizarre Maritime Dispute

The plight of a nine-man Russian-Ukrainian crew imprisoned for the past six months on a vessel in Indonesia is worsening. Despite continuous attempts by diplomats, charities, and well-wishers to find a solution, a bizarre maritime dispute is still preventing the sailors from returning home.

New York, 28 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Douglas Stevenson, the head of the New York-based Center for Seafarers' Rights (CSR), has worked on several high-profile maritime cases in his career. But he said what is happening now in the commercial seaport of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, is a bit much even for a seasoned attorney like him.

A Russian-owned vessel loaded with arms and chemicals, sailing under the flag of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a small Caribbean country, has been detained along with its nine-member Russian and Ukrainian crew by Indonesian immigration authorities since December.

The murky status of the vessel's ownership, a labor dispute with the crew, and various claims of indebtedness have imprisoned the crew on the ship. They also are being fined $20 per person per day for their illegal stay in Indonesia.

Stevenson told RFE/RL that the ship's owner has all but abandoned the ship. "What happened is the vessel entered the port around last December. The crew refused to sail any farther because they hadn't been paid for something like six months. And the owner -- we have no idea who the owner is now -- has abandoned the vessel. Part of the cargo was owned by the government of Bangladesh. It was ammunition. I think there were guns on board. And those guns have been transferred to another ship to be ultimately delivered to Bangladesh," Stevenson said.

The vessel -- under the name "Natol" -- began its journey about a year ago from the Romanian port of Constanta. The ship was loaded with guns and ammunition recently purchased by the Bangladeshi Air Force. In addition, the ship was carrying 312 tons of carbide for a client in Saudi Arabia.

The cargo was licensed and legitimate, but the ship did not meet standards for carrying such a payload. It was a small vessel, with displacement of about 1,200 tons. International navigation rules do not allow such a ship to sail farther than 320 kilometers from shore.

Andrei Bytchkov, an ITAR-TASS correspondent in Jakarta, brought the case of the stranded seamen to public attention earlier this year. He TOLD RFE/RL that, so far, there hasn't been any improvement in their situation. "Now their situation has deteriorated significantly. They went hungry for the last four days because the [local] agent who represents the operator of the vessel, a man named Valeryi Grintsov, who is the owner of the company VALG in Sochi [a Russian port on the Black Sea] -- no one provides for them. In the last few weeks, they were literally cut off from the world. They went hungry in the last four days. I was even thinking to go myself, to bring them some food. I've already done this once," Bytchkov said.

According to Bytchkov, VALG is indebted to its Indonesian agent for about $43,000 and owes the crew unpaid salaries of about $38,000. Bytchkov said Grintsov has repeatedly attempted to force conditions on the crew in exchange for their return home. "Eight hundred dollars. Yes, VALG transferred from Sochi about 10 days ago these $800 and immediately withdrew them. It was puzzling. I went to the bank on behalf of the crew to receive these miserable $800. What happened was that immediately after the transfer, Grintsov spoke with the crew on the telephone and asked them if they will accept his conditions. His conditions were that they will be paid salary only through 28 December, and it will not include their stay in Jakarta's port for the last six months, although it was not their failure. On top of that, they would have to pay for their return expenses," Bytchkov said.

The members of the crew refused an offer to be paid upon their return to Russia and insisted on being paid while in Indonesia. They are afraid, Bytchkov said, that if they have to settle the bill in Russia, they will simply get nothing.

Numerous attempts by RFE/RL to reach VALG for comment were unsuccessful.

Aleksandr Kherov, an official at the consular section of the Russian embassy in Jakarta, is upbeat. He told RFE/RL that the problem is near to a solution and that only "technical" details remain, such as the transfer of money from Russia to Indonesia to free the crew. "The issue has practically been solved. Just a few days ago we received a note from the owner. The only problem is that we are waiting for the money transfer to send the crew home," Kherov said.

RFE/RL: "What about the owner? Didn't he go bankrupt?"

Kherov: "I don't know about this. Our goal here is to help our citizens. We are not concerned with the owner."

Serhiy Nikshych is charge d'affairs at the Ukrainian embassy in Jakarta. His assessment is more subdued. Nikshych told RFE/RL that it is likely the owners of the ship went bankrupt, complicating matters considerably.

Stevenson of the Center for Seafarers' Rights told RFE/RL that the Ukrainian government is diligently working to free its two nationals from the stranded ship. And he said London has recently stepped into the dispute, as well. Saint Vincent was a former British territory. "We have more than one government that can be blamed here. And this is one case where it seems like at least the only government that has been very actively involved trying to help has been the Ukrainian government and now, the British government," Stevenson said.

Because Saint Vincent is such a small country, its interests around the world are represented by British consular establishments.

Stevenson said Indonesian authorities are holding the crew for legitimate maritime concerns. Unfortunately, he said, they are not making accommodations for the crew's living conditions.

In a letter dated 25 June to the commissioner of maritime affairs of Saint Vincent, the British pro consul in Jakarta, Alan Marshall, described conditions aboard the ship as "appalling."

For now, the trapped sailors rely on charities to help them. The Jakarta-based Indonesian Union of Sailors has provided food on several occasions and has also donated $1,000 to the crew as a sign of support and solidarity.

The Ukrainian charge d'affairs in Jakarta said that under the circumstances, the vessel must be seized and sold at auction to cover its debts and the unpaid salaries of the crew. Such a procedure, he said, is complicated and lengthy, and involves a coterie of lawyers and experts.

Last week, a local court in Sochi declared that VALG must meet its obligations and pay the crew its salaries, as well as to cover expenses for their return home. So far, there has been no response.