Harsh treatment of Philippine crew held as witnesses in Calif. sparks calls for reform

The plight of a Philippine crew stranded in California has spotlighted an issue of growing concern to mariners: the harsh treatment of crews held as witnesses to crimes that may have been committed aboard their ships.

On Sept. 10, 2004, the crew arrived in Long Beach, Calif., aboard the 600-foot Katerina with a load of steel. The crew aboard the Maltese-flagged ship, owned by Greek-owned DST Shipping, told dockworkers they had been ordered to throw trash and discharge sewage and oil overboard. When the U.S. Coast Guard boarded Katerina, inspectors discovered 23 deficiencies and violations, including evidence that the oil-water separator had been bypassed, that oil had been discharged recently and that the oil record book had been improperly maintained. There also were numerous safety and humanitarian concerns. The crew lived among cockroaches in the galley, slept on wooden boards without mattresses and did not have adequate drinking water or sanitation.

On Sept. 21, the captain, chief engineer and second engineer were arrested on federal pollution charges of dumping oil into the Pacific Ocean.

The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The key witnesses are the crew. Initially, the U.S. Attorney’s Office ordered DST Shipping to cover the crew’s stay at the San Pedro Holiday Inn while waiting to testify.

David Uhlmann, chief of the environmental crimes division at the U.S. Department of Justice, said this is a common arrangement. While Uhlmann would not comment on the specifics of the Katerina case, he said shipowners often agree to pay food and lodging for detained witnesses as a condition of having a ship released so that it may continue in its commerce.

In the case of the Katerina crew, the order included an expiration date that preceded the court date. So in late November, DST Shipping ceased supporting the seafarers’ stay at the Holiday Inn, and the crew faced eviction since they could not pay. The next day, U.S. marshals took the 13 crewmembers to their first court appearance. To the seafarers’ surprise, they were shackled and handcuffed, something the government said was standard procedure since the marshals do not distinguish witnesses from those accused.

This “standard practice” did not sit well with the seafarers or the maritime community, nor did the government’s offer to house the men in a minimum-security immigration detention facility, where they spent one night.

“These men felt in their hearts that they’d done the right thing,” said Capt. Manny Aschemeyer, of the International Seafarers Center, LA/LB Harbor, “and now the same government that is asking them to testify is throwing them in jail.”

The Catholic chaplain for the Port of Los Angeles, the Rev. Henry Hernando, successfully appealed to a federal judge to have the seafarers released into his care. He then took the men to the Los Angeles Seafarer’s Center, where they slept on the floor and subsisted on charity.

Aschemeyer appealed to the public for donations. The center was flooded with $38,000 in food, clothing and cash. The seafarers received $600 each to send home to their families at Christmas, in January and in early February, since they had not collected a paycheck since October.

Many believe they have been blacklisted for being whistleblowers and may never be able to go to sea again. Meanwhile, the Philippine Consulate secured a small house in southern California where the men moved in mid-December. In February, the men were awaiting their chance at giving videotaped depositions, after which they’d finally be allowed to return home.

The Katerina crew is not alone. As of February, more than a dozen other seafarers connected to three other ships were being held in the United States as witnesses pending court dates.

In early January, Douglas Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights at the Seamen’s Church Institute, contacted the Coast Guard and urged it to better protect the human and legal rights of seafarers who cooperate in investigations. The agency has assured Stevenson it will investigate these allegations and try to arrange for an interagency agreement that establishes a national standard for the treatment of cooperating seafarers.

“The Coast Guard has been very responsive, and they share our concerns,” Stevenson said. “It’s in their best interest that potential witnesses aren’t deterred from coming forward.”

In California, Aschemeyer feared that what happened to the crew of Katerina could deter others from becoming whistleblowers.

“The tragedy of this is that here you are, asking people to blow the whistle, step outside of the box and tell the truth,” he said, “and the word is going to get out about how these men were treated, and no one will speak up if they are going to get treated like this.”

Uhlmann at the U.S. Department of Justice sees it a little differently. He said a number of people have been coming forward to claim whistleblower rewards, and that the witnesses will be needed as long as shipowners keep breaking laws.

“When shipowners no longer engage in intentional acts of pollution and lie to U.S. Coast Guard officials in an effort to conceal their illegal conduct, it will no longer be necessary for seafarers to be witnesses in our cases,” he said. “The villain is not the U.S. government; the culprits are shipowners who are breaking U.S. and international law.”

By Professional Mariner Staff