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Campaigns > Free the Hebei Two > Hebei Spirit fact sheet

04 Dec 2008 - 11 Jun 2009
Free the Hebei Two


Hebei Spirit fact sheet

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(updated 16 January, 2009)

1. The MT Hebei Spirit oil spill in South Korea in December last year was a major incident that had ongoing environmental and economic effects. It was the country’s worst ever such release. The spill was about one-third of the size of the Exxon Valdez release and occurred when a barge struck the Hebei Spirit, which was safely anchored. Despite having been found innocent of any negligence, the Hebei Spirit’s Captain Jasprit Chawla and its Chief Officer Syam Chetan were sentenced to one and a half years and eight months respectively by the Appeal Court on December 10th. They are now appealing this decision and the worldwide campaign for their release continues.

2. The ITF is very concerned by this example of the criminalisation of seafarers in an incident for which they bear no responsibility. Together with world shipping industry bodies, it has constantly pressed for the men to be allowed to return home pending the new trial, but to no avail. In the latest move it is being joined by other concerned industry bodies in staging a major rally at the South Korean Embassy in London on 23rd January 2009.
3. At about 7:00 local time on December 7, 2007, a tug-towed crane barge owned by Samsung Heavy Industries collided with the anchored Hong Kong registered Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) Hebei Spirit, which was carrying 260,000 tonnes (290,000 short tons) of crude oil. The incident occurred near the Port of Daesan on the Yellow Sea coast of Taean County. The barge was floating free after the cable linking it to the tug had snapped in the rough seas. Although no casualties were reported, the collision punctured three of the five tanks aboard the Hebei Spirit and resulted in the leaking of some 10,800 tonnes of oil. Considerable public outrage and concern followed. Korean fishing communities and fishers’ livelihoods were seriously affected.

4. On December 20, the Korean Coast Guard completed an initial investigation. According to their conclusions, blame was shared between the tug captains, the barge captain, and the officers of the Hebei Spirit. The tug captains and the barge captain were charged with negligence and violating the marine pollution prevention law. The officers of the Hebei Spirit were charged with violating marine law. On June 24, the trial concluded. The Hebei Spirit officers were exonerated, as were the personnel on the barge. The two tug captains were found guilty. Barge owners Samsung Heavy Industries were also fined.

Continued Detention of Officers

5. Despite their exoneration, the Hebei Spirit's Captain and Chief Officer continued to be detained in Korea until December, when they were sentenced to jail terms.. Korea's detention of the crew has generated worldwide controversy and protests.  The crew’s release has been demanded by the ITF and the shipping industry.

6. The ITF is deeply troubled by accusations that Korean maritime officials, prosecutors and Samsung lawyers have colluded in the retrial of the two senior officers. Roberto Giorgi, President of management firm V Ships, visited South Korea to meet with the detained Hebei Spirit crew. He told the press that he is concerned at recent developments "which point to collusion" between the Korean authorities, prosecutors and Samsung Heavy Industries, operators of the drifting barge that collided with the oil tanker, and that efforts of Samsung and prosecutors "look to be designed to ensure that the master and chief officer are found guilty on appeal," Giorgi said. "I am worried that the captain and chief officer may not get a fair trial this time around."

Statements and protests

7. On the 7 July 2008, the ITF appealed to the South Korean authorities to allow the two Hebei Spirit officers found innocent of causing the oil spillage to return home. Backed by the ship manager V Ships, the men gave assurances that they would return as and when any further trial took place, following the local prosecutors’ decision to appeal against the judgment that exonerated them of involvement in the spill. ITF Maritime Coordinator Steve Cotton said: “Captain Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan have asked to be able to go home pending what might be a wait of many, many months before any possible further hearing. We can see no possible reason why they should not be allowed to do so. …There are a number of cases where seafarers have been criminalised and their basic rights denied. In our experience, detention or inability to leave the country where the investigation is taking place – has the sole effect of creating unnecessary psychological and physical discomfort which ultimately can damage the detained seafarers’ health.”

8. On 22 July 2008 organisations across the shipping world issued a vigorous joint protest at the unjust and unreasonable detention of the two officers. The ITF, BIMCO, International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), International Shipping Federation (ISF), INTERCARGO and INTERTANKO), the International Group of P&I Clubs (IG), and the Hong Kong Shipowners’ Association conveyed to the government and authorities of the Republic of Korea their surprise, disappointment and great concern at the news that Korea’s courts intended to continue to detain the ship’s officers, calling this move “unjustified, unreasonable and in contravention of the men’s rights” and reminding the authorities that the trial had determined that another vessel was wholly responsible for the incident.

9. On 31 July 2000 ITF officials met with the two Hebei Spirit officers held in Korea and reported that the men were determined to prove their innocence and had been heartened by the rising chorus of support for them. This included a joint demonstration by Indian seafarers’ unions in Mumbai, which resulted in an Indian Government pledge to take up their plight with the Korean Government and the UN’s International Maritime Organization, and a promise from the Korean Consul to raise the matter in Seoul. ITF General Secretary David Cockroft, who met with Justice Ministry officials in Seoul on the men’s behalf, commented that the spill was a desperately serious matter for the thousands of people living or working in the area, who needed compensation and help. However, he said, the two seafarers had been found innocent of involvement. It was time to reconsider, and release them, he stated.

10. The ITF Seafarers’ Section Conference meeting in Hong Kong on 18-19 November 2008 resolved to make “every effort to secure the immediate release of the Captain and Chief Officer of the Hebei Spirit and an end to the injustice they have been subjected to.”

11. On 21 November 2008, maritime trade unions and shipping companies jointly condemned the ongoing detention of the two officers. Union and ship owner representatives meeting in Hong Kong jointly condemned the treatment of them and pledged to do all they could to secure their release. Both parties stated that since the collision and the ensuing oil spill could not be attributed to any negligence on the officers’ part and since they had already been proven innocent under South Korean law, their treatment was unlawful and unjust, and contravened their human rights.

12. On 26 November at the opening of the IMO (International Maritime Organization) Maritime Safety Committee in London the ITF backed strong interventions in favour of the detained officers  from India, Hong Kong and China, stating: “We sympathise with those in South Korea affected by the oil spill but are conscious that Capt Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan have been found innocent of causing last December’s spill. We accept that the Korean Government cannot interfere with the judicial system but call on them to do everything possible to enable the seafarers to be repatriated as soon as possible. Seafarers throughout the world and their representatives are deeply concerned at the unjust treatment of these men and condemn this as another blatant case of criminalisation of a profession that is relied on for our trade. The ITF believes it is time for these men to go home and restore the image of the Republic of Korea as a place where a seafarer can expect fair treatment, justice and respect of their rights.”
13. On 10 December there was worldwide revulsion and disbelief at the verdict against the men. ITF Maritime Coordinator Stephen Cotton commented: “This is not justice. It’s not even something close. What we have seen today is scapegoating, criminalisation 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. He concluded: “The one thing we can promise today is that this isn’t over. The campaign to free these men will go on growing until the justice that was so glaringly absent in this court today is done.” The ITF applauded the men's decision to appeal and has continued its efforts at all levels on their behalf.

14. The international campaign paid off in January. Just one day after the ITF was joined by shipping industry bodies in announcing a protest rally in London in concert with international diplomatic and campaign activities, the Supreme Court released the two men on bail.

15. For more information and views on this (not necessarily those of the ITF), including video footage of the incident please see the following blog: http://justiceforhebeispirit.blogspot.com 

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Copyright © 2012 ITF
ITF House, 49-60 Borough Road, London SE1 1DR  |  +44 20 7403 2733   |  mail@itf.org.uk