Seafarers in drug trafficking case detained for seven-month without charges, IFT finds unacceptable

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is concerned that four Ukrainian nationals have now been detained without charge by Turkish authorities for more than seven months. The crew are being held over claims the seafarers knew about 176 kilograms of cocaine that was found by officials inside a shipping container onboard the MSC vessel that they were operating.

In July 2021, officials boarded the MSC Capucine R (IMO: 9210086) at Iskenderun, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. While on board, they broke the customs seal of the container in question, revealing the stash of cocaine inside.  The master and three deck officers were arrested and taken to a nearby prison.

With the help of seafarer unions and employer advocacy, the accused seafarers were released on bail in late August to a nearby hotel to await charges and trial. In September, the crew’s families were permitted to visit them.  However, as of February, there is still no trial in sight, the four seafarers remain blocked from leaving Turkey and returning to be with their families in Ukraine.

According to the unions, the crew of the MSC Capucine could be targeted by Turkish officials to take the blame for criminals. The unions said it is highly unlikely that the seafarers knew of the drugs because the standard practice is for containers to be sealed before they are loaded on to a vessel at the originating port to prevent tampering, and only to be unsealed at the destination port. The crew typically have no knowledge of, let alone access to the contents of containers (unless the cargo is clearly labelled as hazardous, such as liquid fuels which can be volatile).

The ITF is working with Turkish-based affiliate union TDS, and the Ukrainian seafarers’ home union, the MTWTU. The unions and employer MSC are united in wanting to see the seafarers either finally face court or be released.

“It’s really a case of the Turkish officials needing to put up whatever evidence they have on these seafarers,” said Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the ITF. “If the evidence isn’t there – and you have to ask whether it is, considering how long it has taken to get this trial underway – then the Turkish authorities should throw out the charges and release these seafarers today.

“Turkey has done the right thing by preventing these seafarers from rotting on remand, but we need to see more action from the officials in Turkey for the country to live up to its potential as an upholder of natural justice. It would be disappointing for Turkey to allow what appears to be the unfair criminalization of these seafarers to continue without intervention.” 

“We want Turkey to be a welcoming place for seafarers,” said Irfan Mete, President of TDS, the Seafarers’ Union of Turkey. “We don’t want our country to be a place where crew are fearful of calling into. Frankly, this has been a challenging time for Turkey’s reputation amongst seafarers internationally.”

“We will continue working behind the scenes to encourage the authorities to urgently progress this case. Together, we can ensure Turkey has a reputation as a fair, welcoming port State for all visiting seafarers. As a maritime nation at the crossroads of the world, we must,” said Irfan Mete.

“We want our seafarers home,” said Oleg Grygoriuk, chairman of MTWTU, the Marine Transport Workers’ Trade Union of Ukraine. “No seafarer should be criminalized just for doing our job. No seafarer should be put in the position when they cannot say for sure to their families when they will be home next. The uncertainty this situation brings is as much a sentence for the families as it is for the seafarers.”

The seafarer unions argued that there is a bigger picture to see when considering what is happening to the Ukrainian seafarers trapped in south-eastern Turkey. Seafarers globally are facing a “rising trend of criminalization”, and are being targeted by local law enforcement for their alleged involvement in sophisticated drug trafficking operations – even when there is no evidence.

In a pattern now familiar to the seafarers’ representatives, police and customs officials that are unable or unwilling to bring down the real powers behind crimes like drug trafficking, attempt to blame visiting seafarers, whose only crime often is to be at their place of work (a vessel) when drugs are uncovered. Seafarers have even been blamed when they themselves reported illegal cargo to authorities.

“Of course, we recognize governments’ mandate to investigate and prosecute real crimes by real perpetrators,” said the ITF’s Seafarers’ Section chair, David Heindel. “But what we are seeing with increasing frequency that it is innocent seafarers in the firing line when local officials need someone to blame.”

Heindel said criminalization occurs when seafarers are charged, detained, or punished for criminal offences that port state authorities (such as local customs or police) allege the seafarer is guilty of (typically in relation to an incident or accident that has taken place while they have been working).

When a seafarer is criminalized, it can mean they are denied due process. Authorities may be slow to lay charges against the seafarers, and once finally laid, courts can be slow to hear those charges. Lack of due process can include poor access to bail, or inadequate legal support available to the crew. A lack of warm, dry and safe detention facilities can also be an issue.

“Given seafarers can be thousands of miles from home when they’re arrested, and often not speaking the local language, they are in a very vulnerable position if local authorities do not treat them with fairness,” said Heindel.

“We need every country to have justice systems that are quick to intervene if police or customs officials get it wrong. If courts and judges throw out phony charges swiftly, in a matter of hours or days, rather than taking weeks or months, then a lot of suffering could be avoided. But the reality is that the justice systems in some of these places are too slow to act. That is not acceptable. As the saying goes; justice delayed is justice denied,” said Heindel.

Image credit: TDS.  MSC Capucine crew receiving a visit from Turkish seafarers' union TDS, which is supporting their cause. 

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