Three Indian merchant navy personnel have spent four months in custody in Egypt and the Indian government only found out about their situation less than a week ago.
Till 10 April, the Egyptian authorities, sources suggest, failed to inform Indian authorities about the arrest of the three crew members or their condition. Even now, a week later, they have not received any official communication from the authorities in Egypt and have not yet been granted consular access to visit the Indians stranded. The passports of the crew have been confiscated and they have not been allowed to step off the ship since last December.
A Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) official on Wednesday, 17 April, told The Quint that it was “very odd” that Indian authorities in Egypt were kept in the dark for four months.
The family of 30-year-old Charanya KN Venugopal, residents of Bengaluru, have been in touch with him since the day the detention began. According to them, the crew, including Charanya, initially believed they would be let off soon after a procedural delay. The family decided to reach out to MEA officials and the Indian embassy in Cairo when the detention entered its fourth month in April.
While Egyptian authorities are yet to declare why the ship was detained, the captain, in a letter dated 13 April, wrote that they had been held “without providing any legal reason.”
Vienna Convention States Consular Officers to be Informed ‘Without Delay’
According to Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR), in the event that a national of country A is arrested, committed to custody or prison or detained in any other way in country B, the competent authorities of country B are to inform the consular officers of country A about this without delay. Any communication addressed to the officers of country A by the national is also to be immediately conveyed, with the authorities of country B also required to inform the detained person of his rights in the situation.
It also notes that consular officers have the right to visit the national who is in prison or detention, converse with them and to arrange legal representation for that person. This is what is known as ‘consular access’, and was also the core issue at play in India’s case against Pakistan at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) regarding Kulbhushan Jadhav.
The VCCR has been ratified by both India and Egypt, which means both countries are bound to comply with the requirements of Article 36. This means that the Indian embassy should have been informed about the detention of the three men “without delay”.
Further, the MEA confirmed to The Quint that as of 17 April, a week after they first found out about the incident, they have still not been able to visit the ship or interact with the Indians held.
" “We are waiting for a response from the Egyptian authorities, without that, we cannot establish consular access. Ideally, yes, the Indian embassy should have been informed since there is an Indian national involved. It is very odd for the embassy to be in the dark for four months,” " - MEA sources
The Quint has independently written to the Egyptian embassy in New Delhi and the story will be updated as and when they respond.
Charanya was on Duty Since Dec 2017, Supposed to Return Soon: Family
After trying several channels since the beginning of the month, Charanya Venugopal’s uncle, Jagannathan NS said that he had received a call from the complaint registration wing of the MEA on Tuesday, 16 April, asking for additional details. An MEA official also assured Jagannathan that the ministry was in touch with the Indian embassy there and were actively pursuing the case.
The family has been in touch with Charanya through WhatsApp since December, speaking to him intermittently as and when he gets internet access. Charanya had been working in the merchant navy for the past three years, and was under the current contract since December 2017. Based in Dubai, working with a company called Al Safeena Al Bahria Shipping FZE, Charanya would make frequent trips to Syria, Egypt and other places in the region.
"“Initially, he told us that they were stranded but were safe and would be released soon. Each time we could speak, he would say another week-ten days. That’s what their employer was communicating to them. He told us such delays were normal, it’s like standing in a traffic jam, pay fine and get released, he said. But when we spoke to him in the beginning of April, he sounded upset and affected for the first time.”" - Jagannathan NS
Sensing that something was amiss, they began sending out feelers by emailing MEA officials, tweeting to Sushma Swaraj, contacting the Indian embassy in Cairo and seeking clarity from the employers, based in Dubai.
In an email response, the Indian embassy in Egypt, informed the family that they had not been made aware of the detention of the ship and the presence of Indian crew members on board, despite this being required under international law.
Shipping Company has not Helped: Family
The ‘crew department’ of Al Safeena Al Bahria Shipping, with which Charanya is contracted, initially claimed – incorrectly – that no documentation of the crew had been confiscated, while replying to Jagannathan’s queries.
When probed further about involving government authorities to expedite the process, they informed him that the ‘owners don’t require any help from any third party apart from the lawyers in the case.’
Ship Captain Alleged ‘Violation of Fundamental Human Rights’ in Letter
Not just Indians, the 31-member crew also includes Sri Lankans, Filipinos, Ukrainians, Russians and one person from Azerbaijan.
On 13 April, the captain of the ship, Nesterenko Vitaliy from Ukraine, wrote a letter to the authorities of the nations to which the crew members belong, stating that the crew and their families were going through ‘unimaginable stress, fear for our lives, our safety and well-being.’
The letter states that the crew had been detained ‘without providing any legal reason’.
It also stated that the crew members had been caused ‘severe physical, psychological and financial damage’ due to not being allowed to leave the ship for the last four months.
. Read more on India by The Quint.RSS & BJP’s Nehru-Netaji ‘Cosplay’: Irony Dies a Thousand DeathsNotre Dame Shut For Up To 6 Years, Employees Face Uncertain Future . Read more on India by The Quint.