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Ukrainian sailors charged abroad with smuggling and transportation of migrants

Author : Ksenia Tsivirko

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, more than 290 Ukrainians are now kept behind bars in foreign prisons. Most of them are suspected of transporting migrants, as well as smuggling of explosives and cigarettes. However, the relatives of the sailors are sure that they were embroiled in illegal actions against their will
20:30, 29 October 2018

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According to the Trade Union of Maritime Transport of Ukraine, nearly 300 of our compatriots were detained in Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Libya and Nigeria. Most of them were arrested on suspicion of transporting migrants. 'About 160 Ukrainians are in Greek prisons. That's more than half, of which 20-30 people were accused of smuggling. All the rest are detained because of the transportation of illegal immigrants,' describes the situation Andriy Shevchenko, project manager of the Assol Sailors Support Foundation.

The sun, the sea, the yacht and easy money – that’s a bait for Ukrainians. Committing crimes under pressure of circumstances and falling into the hands of foreign justice, they often do not realize what they are accused of. 'As a rule, third parties hire people without any professional training to work on a tourist boat at a resort, for example, in Turkey. Ukrainians are promised high salaries, and they agree on such working conditions. At the time of employment, they may not be aware that they will transport illegal migrants. But when they find themselves on the same board with illegal immigrants, they face a choice: to agree and commit a crime and, if arrested, get a sentence - or refuse and lose the 'contract' and money,' explains Mykola Golbin, the human rights activist for maritime law and labor migration.

According to experts, often such workers do not even sign an employment contract, and on board of the yacht they are listed as passengers. However, this is not an excuse for law enforcement agencies: those who are caught, that is, 'perpetrators' go to prison. At the same time, offenders often register a yacht to offshore companies, and other men are engaged in hiring the crew, so it’s almost impossible to reach a real organizer of transportation. 'Mafia and organized groups transport illegal immigrants charter vessels in poor condition. You can leave such a ship in case of failure of the operation and its arrest by law enforcement services,' adds Yevhen Sukachev, the member of the Maritime Law Association of Ukraine and partner of the Black Sea Law Company.

Relatives of the convicted sailors complain that overseas law enforcement officers mistreat them and do not fulfill their obligations. 'Before the court session, the police of Greece conducted only one interrogation of witnesses and suspects. My brother was provided with a document in Greek, saying what kind of a felony he was accused of. He could not even understand what was written there, and could not independently protect himself. At the trial, the translator was provided, but he only translated the judge’s question, what the prosecutor and other witnesses said was still not clear. In addition, after the court session, they did not give him the sentence paper. At least a copy of this document should be issued to a prisoner so that he can appeal against it in the court of appeal,' says Yuriy Krasyuk, the brother of the arrested in Greece.

The local free attorneys present their services poorly, and Ukrainians convicted in another state can only count on the help of the consulate. "According to my observations, only 10% of convicted Ukrainian sailors were justified and released, mostly those who hired a paid lawyer. And these services are not cheap: from 2 to 8 thousand euros. As for the consulate, in my opinion, they do everything they can. They write notes and demands, but they cannot influence court proceedings. These are cases that last not a year or three, depending on what time periods of investigative actions and the procedure for appealing a sentence is prescribed in the law",  explains Andriy Shevchenko.

Pandora's Boxes. Smuggling

'Once, an Istanbul company hired me on an old ship, which had to be shipped from Odesa to Turkey for cutting for scrap. According to the documents, the vessel was empty. During the storm, a keel cracked, so I needed to go down. And there were boxes - 8 thousand of them, and each contained 50 blocks of cigarettes. The shipowner decided to arrange a farewell tour for the ship as well as for the crew. Well, the captain and I consulted and decided to throw all the boxes overboard, straight into the sea,' said Oleksandr K., senior assistant to the captain.

According to maritime law, in order to relieve themselves of responsibility for a crime, the crew must inform the port of arrival or another nearby port about the detected illegal cargo. In this case, the law enforcement officers of this country will arrest the cargo and the vessel, which will subsequently be sold at auction. 'But we didn’t want to block the radio air with this message. And then, there would be an extra time with paperwork. We anchored 2 miles from the coast in the Turkish port of Aliaga and waited for the agent to organize the passage of the ship. At night, the friends of the shipowner arrived in motorboats. The whole crew of seven people were threatened with knives, that friends promised to kill the captain, injured the senior mechanic and for some reason thought that we sold these cigarettes right at sea. They said that if we went down to the shore, they would wait for us there. And the shipowner did not pay us for three weeks until we turned to the consuls and to trade unions. We did not have the money to return to Ukraine, we lived on a ship; we drank water from under the air conditioner and fished ... ',  Oleksandr recalls his adventure.

If not the vicissitudes of the weather and the storm, because of which it was necessary to descend into the hold, the smuggling would go unnoticed, and then the crew members will be the ones to blame. However, it should be noted that the crew is not responsible for the contents of containers sealed at the port: their task is to ensure that the seals are not torn off and damaged.

'But in fact, these common things are not respected in every country. Here are a few examples. In Greece, the crew of the Mekong Spirit vessel, which was carrying industrial emulsion for drilling and blasting operations in mining areas, was detained last year. According to all the documents, the containers were sealed. But the Greek law enforcement officers considered that the cargo was being transported bypassing the authorities for terrorist operations. The same situation with the Andromeda ship happened in January of this year. As for Ukrainian sailors detained for fuel smuggling in Libya and Nigeria – that was another story. For example, the tanker leaves the state port and goes to another port controlled by the rebels. Thus, one side does not recognize the legality of the cargo from the other side and considers it smuggling. And the sailors remain hostages to the situation and will be detained,' says Andriy Shevchenko.

Sailors say that in the European ports, the ship is inspected very carefully, so there is no way smuggling will be unnoticed there. 'They tap the interstitial spaces, penetrate into any place where they can get, and those cannot be physically penetrated are checked with instruments. Specially trained dogs walk around and smell the drugs. Special services work there professionally.  It is almost impossible to transport contraband on a merchant ship,' says third assistant to the captain Stanislav B.

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According to the seamen, if contraband is transported, then sales should be arranged at the port of unloading and there should be communication links with interested port services. 'If we are talking about large batches, the officer corps will necessarily be aware, and the junior crew may not be aware of the illegal cargo. But authorities will punish everyone. According to the charter, all crew members, after identifying any suspicious fact, are obliged to report this to the captain. So in the end, it is the captain who is legally responsible for everything. There are, of course, some cases when he cannot know. Especially when it comes to two or three blocks of cigarettes that someone bought but did not include in the crew’s personal belongings', adds Stanislav.

The sailors themselves complain that there is a high degree of corruption in the 'black' ports, and the port authorities may demand a bribe even without any violations that need to be protected.

'It happens very simply. Official port authorities come on board and say that, for example, cocaine was found in the unloaded cargo. They bring a person and call him a drug recipient who points at someone of the crew. Or they say that the contents of the cargo are not the same comparing to declared in documents. And then, talking face-to-face, extort from the captain, say, $ 10,000. Naturally, the captain does not want to pay anything, because he knows that neither he nor his crew are guilty. The 'price list' is growing, the ship stays, the shipowner needs an explanation of the reasons ... And then there is a dilemma for the crew. And they often pay from their own pocket,' says captain Oleksandr L.

Looking for a better life. Migrants

 In search of safety and better living conditions, migrants do everything: they hide in merchant ships and crowded fishing schooners. Despite the fact that many of them die on the way, a 'lucky ticket' costs them at least 1,500 Euros. According to foreign media reports, sometimes the cost of transporting one person exceeds 8 thousand euros. However, not only refugees from eastern countries are ready to sacrifice for the sake of a better life: Ukrainians go abroad for the same purpose.

'Last year, my husband got a job in Turkey as a mechanic on a ship that was supposed to transport food to Italy. For two weeks they stayed in the port, and when they finally left the coast, he and his friend went to inspect the ship. They found that in the holds there were a lot of people instead of the cargo. They asked the captain. He did not speak Russian, but he indicated with a gesture that everything was OK. They realized that they were in trouble, but the ship was already far from the shore. A day later a speedboat approached the ship, to which the captain jumped, leaving all the people at the ship. Husband with other crew members tried to steer the ship, but in the captain's cabin, the GPS-navigator was installed on a certain route, the autopilot was switched on. They could not change the trajectory and decided to sail to a certain coast. But the problems did not end there. The storm occurred, the engine stopped... It was scary. Someone from the crew sent the SOS signal, and a cargo ship approached them, took them all to the port of Patras in Greece. There, my husband has already been arrested for transporting migrants,' says the wife of a 25-year-old Valery Berezkin.

The brother of his companion adds: 'During the interrogation, refugees from Pakistan said they saw our people for the first time already on the ship and paid others for the trip. And they paid for the trip to Italy, and not to Greece, where the cargo ship delivered them. But the Greek court for some reason recognized my brother and his friend the organizers of the illegal transportation of migrants,' says Viktor Krasyuk.

A similar story is shared by a resident of Chernihiv, Tetiana Sydorenko, the mother of a 24-year-old student Serhiy, who decided in March this year to work as a cook on a cruise ship in Turkey. 'He was paid for a trip to Turkey, where he worked on the ship together with two other young guys as laborers. The first month was good, he sent photos and videos, told that they were well fed and allowed to walk around the city. Then he stopped communicating. After 2 weeks, they called me from Reggio di Calabria in Italy and said that my son was arrested. Then he told me that they had been given the old boat and told to transport it to the other side, where they would be paid for in a month. The course was set in advance on the GPS-navigator, which they could not change. At night, some boats with refugees swim up to their ship, they all jump over. The boys began to resent and wanted to get off, but they were threatened that they would be thrown into the sea. Imagine a boat 9 meters long, and there are 36 Kurd refugees, as reported later by the police. I cannot imagine how they fit in there. So they sailed to Italy, where they were met by the Carabinieri and immediately arrested,' Tetiana tells with anxiety.

Human rights activists say that the scheme with yachts is the most common. Third parties offer a decent wage abroad, even if the Ukrainians do not have the minimum skills to manage a floating craft. 'You need to be prepared for the fact that there is something unclear. They think that they are lucky: someone offers a high salary (starting from a thousand euros) without demanding any documents, without going through a medical commission, without obtaining a license. Until the moment of employment, seamen really don’t know what is going on there, but when they are already on the yacht, together with illegal immigrants, then all actions take place consciously,' explains Mykola Golbin.

According to him, due to the migration crisis in Greece, authorities pay a lot of attention to such offenses. So, for the transportation of one illegal migrant, you can go to jail for up to 10 years. But even if the crew transported 60 refugees, they cannot condemn anyone for 600 years, contrary to the information widespread in the media: the maximum for such crimes is 25 years. In this case, the responsibility for the transport of migrants would be removed, if the crew saved them from death in the open sea. In addition, according to Article 26 of the Council of Europe Convention on Measures to Combat Trafficking, if the crime was committed under duress, the crew is also exempted from liability. “But in practice it is quite difficult to prove that everything was done at gunpoint. And in this case, the burden of proof falls solely on the sailors,” adds Golbin.

The real organizers of the crimes are elusive. But overseas law enforcers need to punish someone if a fact of crime is discovered. The crew that they meet in the port on the same ship as illegal immigrants would be called the organizers.

“It’s almost impossible to find the final beneficiary. Everything was thought out to the smallest detail. In 2001, I came to France to work on an auctioned vessel that was once arrested by the French coast guard. It was abandoned 7 km from the coast. It went from the Middle East countries with drugs and migrants on board. As soon as it approached the coast, the captain threw the ship aground, lowered the boats loaded with people and contraband, and disappeared in an unknown direction. It was an old vessel bought at the price of scrap metal just for one trip to France ...', says captain Oleksandr L.

To organize the transportation with the least risk, the mafia buys old, cheap vessels that they can put under arrest or even send to the bottom. Such vessels are registered under the 'convenient flag' of countries that do not check technical condition of the craft, may refuse to give information about the owner, offer a simplified registration procedure and low taxation.

In addition, small yachts do not arouse strong suspicion, and it is impossible to control them all: unlike large vessels, the trajectory of their movement is not tracked via satellite communications. They can sail to any wild island and disembark illegal passengers, remaining unnoticed by port services. Experts believe that no more than 10 percent of such traffic is spotted by the coast guard.

“To cross the EU border, they work according to the following scheme: a yacht receives permission to travel to another port together with the Crew-list. But on the way to the destination port they stop for a while. 10-15 minutes is enough to get the illegal passengers on board," explains Yevhen Sukachov. Moreover, if the yacht is under the 'convenient flag', a simplified inspection procedure is applied to it, and only if the vessel has aroused suspicion.

Protecting yourself is incredibly difficult

Relatives of those arrested complain that foreign law enforcement officers do not respect human rights and violate the established procedural rules of the judicial investigation. 'Either on board or in the police station they give documents and say to sign them. Documents are written in a foreign language are a translator is not always provided. In order to sign them, it takes at least time to get acquainted in a presence of a lawyer,'says human rights activist Mykola Golbin.

'At the same time, the Ukrainian consulate’s assistance was also not enough. They called me from prison and said that Serhiy admitted his guilt. They say, thus he is cooperating with the investigation, he will receive only 2 years in prison. Although when I spoke with my son, he said that he did not admit his guilt and did not sign any documents. At the same time, they don’t give me a procedural document, where he admitted this guilt. I don’t know whom to believe ... For 2 months that he was in prison, no one from the Ukrainian consulate came to visit him', complains the mother of Serhiy Sydorenko, detained in Italy.

According to a study conducted in 2012 by the International Center for the Protection of the Rights of Seafarers (SRI), 81 percent of seafarers felt an unfair attitude during the investigation of crimes. In connection with the increasing incidence of violations of the rights of Ukrainian seamen abroad, in early October, the Foreign Ministry and the Union of Maritime Transport Workers of Ukraine presented a project 'to prevent seafarers from engaging in crimes at sea, to ensure the protection of their rights to fair treatment in places of pretrial detention and in penitentiary institutions'

'The need for the project has already been supported by four specialized agencies of the United Nations, namely the International Maritime Organization, the International Labor Organization, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime,' adds the press service.

'However, the consulate does not provide legal protection to Ukrainian seamen. You can contact a free lawyer provided by the prosecuting country, but these are usually inexperienced and indifferent specialists. Relatives have to rely mainly on the assistance of paid lawyers who are hired through Ukrainian lawyers’ service,' Golbin explains.

For the services of a paid lawyer abroad you will have to pay the sum starting from 2 thousand euros.

Professional sailors also do not believe in the effectiveness of the Ukrainian consulates’ assistance. 'Our union exists only nominally, on paper. I don’t know a single case when the Ukrainian union or consulate helped seamen. If a seaman is in an international trade union (ITF), then foreign services can really help. But Ukraine has not yet ratified the "Maritime Labor Convention" for 2006', said the captain Oleksandr L.

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