Deck officers facing prison in South Korea freed on bail following international protests

Chief Officer Syam Chetan, holding child, and Capt. Jasprit Chawla, right, are shown with family members after the men were released on bail Jan. 15.

Two deck officers who were initially acquitted of criminal charges in South Korea’s worst oil spill, but later convicted and jailed, were released on bail Jan. 15 following protests from mariners worldwide.

The case against Capt. Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan dates to Dec. 7, 2007, when the 147,000-ton oil tanker Hebei Spirit was struck and breached by a crane barge in the Yellow Sea about 70 miles southwest of Seoul. A cable from one of two tugboats towing Samsung No. 1 snapped in gale-force winds and high seas at about 1900, setting the barge on a collision course with the tanker. Hebei Spirit, which was fully loaded and anchored off the coast of Taean County while awaiting a berth, sustained holes in three of its cargo holds and spilled 10,500 tons of oil.

Chawla, Chetan and the skippers of the tugs and barge were indicted on Jan. 21, 2008, on charges of negligence and violating anti-pollution laws. A district court in Daejeon convicted the tug captains on June 23, but acquitted Chawla and Chetan, who were barred from leaving the country pending an appeal from prosecutors as permitted under South Korean law. The barge master was also exonerated.

A three-judge appeals court overturned the verdict on Dec. 10, 2008, stating that Chawla should have gone full astern to drag anchor and that he should not have pumped inert gas into the tanker’s cargo holds because it increased oil spillage when the risk of explosion was low. In addition, the court said that Hebei Spirit should have been ballasted to create a 10° list to prevent the spill and that the transfer of oil between cargo tanks took too long, according to a report in the maritime journal Lloyd’s List.

Chawla was sentenced to 18 months in prison and Chetan received an eight-month term for failing to notify the captain sooner about the impending collision. The judges also sentenced the barge master to 18 months in prison while reducing the sentences for the tug captains.

Supporters of the jailed mariners protest their detention at a rally in December in Mumbai, India. The captain faces an 18-month prison term, while the chief officer has been sentenced to eight months. An appeal of their case is to be heard by the South Korean Supreme Court.

The case has been appealed to South Korea’s Supreme Court, which is expected to render its decision in the next few months. Chawla and Chetan, both Indian nationals, must remain in the country in the interim.

“This is not justice," Stephen Cotton, maritime coordinator for the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), said after the appeals court ruling. “It’s not even something close. What we have seen today is scapegoating, criminalization and a refusal to consider the wider body of evidence that calls into question the propriety of the court. This decision is incomprehensibly vindictive and will impact on all professional mariners."

The ITF is among nearly a dozen shipping groups that have protested the detention of the “Hebei Two" and questioned legal developments in the case, including the validity of an accident report by the Korea Maritime Safety Tribunal that was cited by prosecutors during the appeal. None of the evidence submitted to the tribunal by lawyers for the tanker’s crew and its owner, Hong Kong-registered Hebei Ocean Shipping, was considered in the report, according to Lloyd’s List.

Roberto Giorgi, president of the maritime management company V.Ships, said in September that the tribunal’s report was “not balanced or fair" and that it in effect required that the crew of the tanker be able to predict the future.

“The captain could not foresee that the tow wire was going to break," he said.

Giorgi also said developments in the case “point to collusion" between Korean authorities, prosecutors and Samsung Heavy Industries (SHI), the operator of the barge and tugs involved in the accident. An SHI spokesman rejected the claim as unwarranted and said the case “has been handled fairly by our legal authorities and according to our domestic law," according to Agence France-Presse.

SHI filed a court motion in January to limit its liability for compensation paid to the residents of Taean to $3.8 million. In its application, the company criticized the crew of Hebei Spirit for not taking the necessary steps to avoid the accident and to limit the size of the spill.

“The barge drifted after being separated from the tugboats amid bad weather and it was Samsung’s fault it didn’t inform other ships. But the tanker did not make any attempt to avoid the collision," SHI said.

In October 2008, the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund estimated damages from the spill to be between $418 million and $444 million.

By Professional Mariner Staff