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Free the Nigeria 26 — the seafarers who have been unfairly criminalised

23 Nov 2022
Press Release

Twenty-six seafarers who are held in Nigeria on charges of oil theft should be freed now, following confirmation from BP that their ship’s load was authorised, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has said.

ITF’s Fair Practices Committee Steering Group (FPCSG) issued a statement last week demanding that Nigeria immediately releases and repatriates the seafarers. The FPCSG governs ITF’s Flags of Convenience campaign and takes a special interest where seafarers are unfairly and unreasonably criminalised — as in this case.

The very large crude carrier (VLCC) tanker Heroic Idun (IMO: 9858058) was authorised to load at Akpo oil field in the Niger Delta in late July, BP has said. The British oil giant was subcontracting the ship to take the load and has expressed its support for the crew.

“These seafarers have been subjected to lengthy detentions and unfair legal action apparently because of a mix-up,” said Dave Heindel, ITF Seafarers’ Section Chair and Co-Chair of the FPCSG. “Some have been held in appalling conditions and interrogated without charge. They have been denied legal help. Their basic human rights have been infringed and that’s something the ITF will not stand for.”
 

The theft that never took place

This month, the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt, Nigeria ordered the detention of all crew members for alleged involvement in oil theft. The seafarers face five charges under the various Nigerian statutes including the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences Act 2019. The crew initially faced three charges, but the court later amended this to five charges including: dealing in export crude oil without a licence; entering a restricted zone; falsely reporting piracy; refusing lawful orders from maritime authorities; and violation of customs laws. The seafarers pleaded not guilty.

The charges have been laid despite the fact the tanker was never loaded with oil and was seized outside Nigeria’s legal jurisdiction. The Marshal Islands, where the ship is registered, initiated a case against Equatorial Guinea for the illegal seizure at the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, in Hamburg, Germany on 10 November 2022.

“The way these seafarers have been treated is outrageous,” said Heindel. “There are rules under international law for dealing with crimes at sea, that both Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea appear to have completely ignored.”

“Nigeria must recognise the complete lack of evidence in this case and free the crew immediately. Their arrest, continued detention and possible lengthy legal battle is a complete miscarriage of justice.”

The ITF Fair Practices Committee Steering Group strongly condemned the criminalisation and unfair treatment of the seafarers, reminding states of their legal obligations under the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC). Regardless of charge, seafarers who are detained in a foreign port should be dealt with promptly, given due process of law and with appropriate consular protection.
 

Chronology of events

According to the ship’s owners, Idun Maritime:

  • Late July: The Heroic Idun (IMO: 9858058) was authorised to load at Akpo oil field in the Niger Delta. BP was subcontracting the vessel.
  • August 8: The Heroic Idun arrived at Akpo on 8 August 2022. The terminal said it had not received confirmation of the final quantity of oil from NNPC (formerly the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation) and the vessel was asked to stand at anchorage for a few days.
  • Night of August 8: The vessel was approached by a launch whose identity could not be verified as its automatic identification system was turned off. The master suspected it may be pirates trying to board the ship, and after consulting with the owners and the company’s specialist piracy insurers, sailed away from the danger. The master immediately reported a potential piracy incident which is considered best practice for an oil tanker in that area (it later transpired that the launch was a Nigerian naval vessel).
  • August 11: The Akpo terminal advised the Heroic Idun that it now had NNPC clearance to load on 17 August.
  • August 12: The NNPC reversed the order and advised the vessel not to enter.
  • August 12: While passing through the exclusive economic zone of Sao Tome and Principe, the vessel was intercepted by the navy of Equatorial Guinea and ordered to proceed to Luba Bay. The crew was split up. Fifteen were taken ashore and interrogated for up to 14 hours. They were denied access to legal representation. The seafarers remained in detention ashore or on board for nearly three months. No formal charge nor arrest was ever made.
  • November 11: Nigerian authorities moved the vessel and crew to Bonny Offshore Terminal, Gulf of Guinea in Nigeria, escorted by a navy gunboat and armed guards. It appears that Equatorial Guinea permitted this despite never having arrested or charged any of the crew.
  • November: The Federal High Court in Port Harcourt, Nigeria ordered the detention of all crew members for alleged involvement in oil theft. The seafarers face five charges under the various Nigerian statutes including the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences Act 2019. The charges include dealing in export crude oil without a licence; entering a restricted zone; falsely reporting piracy; refusing lawful orders from maritime authorities; and violation of customs laws. The seafarers pleaded not guilty.

Media contact: media@itf.org.uk