Madras High Court sets free all 35 crew members of US ship

Chennai, Nov 27: The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on Monday set free the 35 crew members of MV Seaman Guard Ohio as the prosecution failed to prove its charge that the ship and its crew were in the Indian waters with unlicensed arms, said an advocate.

"The prosecution failed to prove its charges and hence the court has now set them free. It is not known whether the prosecution would go for appeal against the judgement," P.Muthusamy, counsel for the Indian crew members of the ship, told IANS over phone from Madurai, around 500 km from here.

With this, the court has set aside the 2016 sentence of a Tuticorin court that awarded five-year jail terms to 10 crew and 25 security guards aboard an American ship that was seized by authorities in Indian waters in 2013.

They were also levied a fine of Rs 3,000 each.

Muthusamy said the fine paid will be refunded.

Flying West African country Sierra Leone's flag, Seaman Guard Ohio, owned by US company AdvanFort, was found in Indian waters on an October 2013 night, around 15 nautical miles from Tuticorin port.

The Indian Coast Guard escorted the ship to Tuticorin port, around 600 km from Chennai.

The Coast Guard said the crew included eight Indians and two Ukrainians while six British, 14 Estonians, a Ukrainian and four Indians were among the security guards on the ship and all were arrested after arms and ammunition without valid authorisation or documents was found aboard.

The state police had also alleged that the ship had obtained 1,500 litres of diesel illegally from private sources.

The ship's owners AdvanFort specialise in providing maritime security against pirates.

After the Indian Coast Guard escorted the ship to Tuticorin port, those aboard were questioned by officials of different security departments and agencies.

In 2014, the Madras High Court dismissed the charges against the crew and armed guards but reaffirmed charges against the ship's captain and the fuel vendors.

On an appeal by the Tamil Nadu Police, the Supreme Court in 2015 set aside the high court judgment and ordered a trial by the Tuticorin sessions court.