Suez canal blockage: Indian crew may face legal action

Ever Given, the container ship that blocked the Suez Canal for six days, has reached Egypt's Great Bitter Lake for inspection, after tugs refloated it on Monday.

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSS), the German company that manages the Panama-registered vessel, later said in a media statement that its 25-member Indian crew are safe.

"A crew of 25 Indian nationals remain aboard the vessel. They are safe, in good health and have been working closely with all parties involved to re-float the vessel. Their hard work and tireless professionalism are greatly appreciated," it said.

In India, however, there is a major concern about how the crew - who are from Mumbai, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and some northern states - will be treated by the Suez Canal Authority.

"There is a clear danger that the crew will be made scapegoats for the blockage," a senior person associated with the shipping industry told The Times of India.

BSS also said there are no reports of pollution or cargo damage and initial investigations rule out any mechanical or engine failure as a cause of the grounding.

However, both the Indian government and Indian seafarers' organisations are concerned about the legal issues that the crew may face, including the possibility of criminal negligence charges.

According to sources in the shipping industry, one of the possibilities is that the master and some of the crew may be restrained from travelling further and could be placed under house arrest until the investigation is completed into the cause of the accident.

Preliminary investigations suggest that the Japanese shipping company Shoei Kisen Kaisha-owned vessel ran aground due to strong winds. However, Egyptian officials have said that human error may have contributed.

There are now fears that the crew could be taken to task for the blockage, which roughly cost 12 per cent of global trade and held up trade valued at over US$9 billion per day, according to data from Lloyd's list.

The unprecedented shutdown threatened to disrupt oil and gas shipments to Europe from the Middle East and raised fears of goods shortages and rising costs for consumers.

Captain Sanjay Parashar, member of India's National Shipping Board (NSB), said: "First, it has to be ascertained how the giant ship ran aground.

"Facts can be checked by examining and listening to conversations in the ship voyage data recorder (equivalent to the black box in aeroplanes). One can then come to an understanding as to what caused the mishap."

The National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI) expressed full solidarity with Ever Given's crew. "The NUSI has promised solidarity with all Indian seafarers aboard the Ever Given," said NUSI's general-secretary, Abdulgani Serang. "I got in touch with them. The seafarers are fine, but stressed.

"They are not alone, and we will support them whenever required and in whatever manner required."

India's Director-General of Shipping Amitabh Kumar told the Times of India that the directorate will "intervene if the inquiry is not impartial".

"As there is no harm to the Indian crew, there is no reason for us to intervene right now," he said.

"As per the International Maritime Organisation convention, any vessel that has met with an accident has to be investigated. The same will be conducted on this vessel.

"The report is normally submitted by the flag state. If we receive any complaint from the company about the inquiry, we will intervene."

Mr David Heindel, chair of the International Transport Workers' Federation Seafarers' Section, pointed out that too often seafarers are unfairly blamed for incidents at sea, so a proper investigation is a must.

"When proper investigations are conducted, we are able to stand back and see the systematic factors which drive bad outcomes," he said. Calling the Indian seafarers heroes, he said that they need everyone's support.

"There is a clear danger that the crew will be made scapegoats for the blockage." - A senior person associated with the shipping industry

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