The Madurai Bench of India's Madras High Court in Chennai on Monday ruled in favor of all 35 ship guards, including 14 Estonians, from the Seaman Guard Ohio in their appeal against the Tuticorin Magistrate Court's January 2016 conviction for entering India with weapons, the British media said on Monday.
"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the [Estonian Embassy] will do everything in their power to help the men quickly return to their families," Minister of Foreign Affairs Sven Mikser (SDE) was quoted by spokespeople as saying.
"I'm very glad that the court satisfied the ship guards' appeal which we have waited for so long," the minister continued. "It is definitely great news for the ship guards as well as their next of kin, and we hope that the extremely complicated situation will be settled now."
According to information received from the lawyers on the case, India's Office of the Public Prosecutor has 90 days to appeal the decision, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. The Estonian consul will travel to Chennai on Monday night to meet with the Estonian ship guards as soon as possible.
Four years since ship guards' arrest
On Oct. 18, 2013, police in Tamil Nadu arrested 35 crew and security personnel on board the anti-piracy vessel Seaman Guard Ohio, including 14 Estonian citizens as well as citizens of the UK, Ukraine and India. They were charged in December of the same year with illegal refueling, illegal handling of firearms and illegal entry into territorial waters, and released on bail in April 2014.
After being handled in various court instances, the case was returned by India's Supreme Court to the Tuticorin Magistrate Court, which on Jan. 11, 2016, sentenced the men to five years' imprisonment for entering India with weapons. At the end of January, the ship guards decided to appeal the verdict and applied for bail. The bail application was rejected on Feb. 29, but the court decided to continue appeal hearings, which were subsequently postponed multiple times before finally taking place in October and November. The court wrapped up the appeal hearings on Nov. 30.
Appeal delayed for nearly year
The handling of the convicted crew members' appeal resumed at the beginning of November, almost a year after the ship guards had presented their arguments in support of the appeal.
According to the Times of India, the ship guards claimed in their appeal that they were innocent and possessed weapons for anti-piracy activities. The court had turned down their pleas to suspend the sentence on Feb. 29 and continued hearings with a view to potentially setting aside the judgment.
The crew members had argued that the trial court failed to consider the actual facts and circumstances of the case and wrongly held that the appellants failed to produce adequate proof on the crew's claim that the vessel was in distress. As a matter of fact, they claimed, the vessel had run out of diesel by the time the Coast Guard intercepted it, the master had communicated about it with the company, and the logbook entries would reveal the truth. Besides, the trial court did not take into consideration the cross-examination of the prosecution's witnesses 1 and 2 by the defense, which established that the vessel was outside the territorial waters of India. They also said that the lower court's holding that there was a proper registration certificate for the vessel was wrong.
The prosecution argued that it was not known why the crew had entered Indian territory without permission and why they had kept arms during the vessel's stay in the Indian Ocean for 48 hours, the Times of India reported.
Prisoner exchange agreement signed last fall
On Nov. 15, 2016, Estonia and India signed an agreement on the transfer of sentenced persons, ratified by the Riigikogu in February 2017, whereby Indian and Estonian citizens sentenced to prison in the other country could serve out their sentences in their respective home country.
The agreement could not be applied to the Estonian ship guards until their sentence has taken effect, however, which meant that the ship guards would have first had to drop their appeal or the appeal would have to be completed.
Editor: Aili Vahtla