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Friday, February 17, 2012

Trigger-happy Italian ship kills 2 Indian fishermen off Kerala waters.

At Sea, there are the ‘perils of the sea’ and perhaps more as found out by Indian fishermen recently.  Closer to their native shore, an Indian fishing boat was fired at and two fishermen lost their lives by the unprovoked firing.  It was an Italian oil tanker ‘Enrica Lexie’, from which gunshots were fired by the security guards of the ship,  killing two Indian fishermen off Alappuzha, in Arabian Sea off Kerala coast around 4:30 pm on 15th Feb 2012. According to office bearers of the Mechanised Boat Owners Association of Kerala, the boat “St. Antony” was from Kollam in Kerala.   One of the dead fishermen is a native of Muddakkal in Kollam, the other hails from Kaliyakkavila in Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu.  The  mishap allegedly occurred around 40 nautical miles off Thottappally coast in Alappuzha district.

Reacting to the incident, the Navy said the security personnel fired at the fishermen mistaking them for pirates. Following the mishap, the Coast Guard launched two boats “CGS Samar” and “CGS Lakshmi Bai” and an aircraft to pursue the Italian ship Enrica Lexie, forced it to anchorage off Kochi for detailed investigation. The Indian coast guard and navy vessels escorted the Italian ship to the nearby port city of Kochi and were questioning the captain and crew.

The owner of the fishing vessel,  was quoted as stating that the firing was unprovoked. The boat was fishing when the ship opened fire, killing the two fishermen instantly, he said. Nine other fishermen onboard the craft survived. 

The events at Somalia have their far reaching consequences.  With the threat of piracy looming large to merchant ships traversing the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, many ships deploy armed security guards on ships. Ship owners say the move has proved effective and prevented hijackings.  But that can seldom justify the trigger-happy act of security killing two fishermen when the threat was only a far-fetched perception.  Nothing can remotely explain, let alone justify, the killing of two Indian fishermen. From available accounts, the Italian personnel on board the Enrica Lexie did not follow international protocols in dealing with a suspect boat. Warning shots were apparently fired, but the Italian vessel did not do evasive manoeuvres before deciding that the fishing boat actually carried pirates, and not fishermen. The fishermen were not armed; they were waiting for the ship to pass before proceeding further. In any case, common sense would suggest that the area, 14 nautical miles off Alappuzha in Kerala, was not a danger zone.

India summoned the Italian Ambassador and registered its protest at the killing, this nasty incident calls for concerted efforts among governments to prevent similar mid-sea misadventures. Sadly,  the threat to sailors is not from sea alone

It is claimed by the tanker that the firing was on mistaken assumption, that they were pirates.  It is further reported that a senior Italian diplomat reached Kochi yesterday, held discussions with the City Police Commissioner and left for the vessel anchored in the sea. The Kochi police had earlier taken the personnel aboard the ship into custody. Any further proceedings would be on the basis of the information coming out of the questioning, sources said. There were also reports that the ship’s captain was refusing to cooperate with the interrogators and that he was persisting in his argument that he would speak only after meeting the Italian diplomat.   Contradicting the claims of the Italian embassy that sufficient warning had been given to the fishing boat, owner of the boat, said upon arrival at Neendakara from outer sea that there were no warnings.  He reportedly understood the seriousness of the situation only after seeing the crew member writhing in pain with blood gushing out of his body and that nine of the 11 fishermen on the boat were sleeping after lunch. There reportedly was a barrage of bullets that killed the two and did not allow others to reach them even. 

Kerala’s  Chief Minister Oommen Chandy announced a relief assistance of Rs 5 lakh each for the families of the two deceased fishermen while the district collector of Kollam released an immediate relief of Rs 10,000 each. The Chief Minister said that the Government would provide the necessary legal help to the fishermen to get compensation from the Italian shipping company.   The coastal police has registered a murder case against the crew of the vessel based on the evidence of bullet injuries found on the bodies of the dead fishermen  during post-mortem.  Meanwhile, fishermen's organisations have threatened to lay siege the ship at Kochi harbour demanding penal action against the ship crew.

International Maritime Organisation has in place revised interim guidance to ship owners, operators and masters on the use of privately contracted armed security personnel on board ships in high risk area  - they have to take all reasonable steps to avoid the use of force. If force is used, it should be in a manner consistent with applicable law. In no case should the use of force exceed what is strictly necessary, and in all cases should be proportionate to the threat and appropriate to the situation.  Fire arms can be used only in self-defence or when there is imminent threat of death or serious injury or to prevent perpetration of serious crime.  Whilst these would be applicable in dangerous places with serious threats of piracy,  how they ever thought of one so closer to Kerala shore is unimaginable. 
The vessel MV Enrica Lexie  had six Italian armed guards and was bound from Singapore to Egypt with a crew of 19 Indians.

Prima facie the case appears to be one of murder by a better-equipped party on high seas. In that light, the crew should be tried under Indian Penal code and the Govt. should not budge to any International pressure.  The trigger happy security guards must be penalized for their wrongful action.  The international maritime community should also be involved to give justice to the victims and it should be realised that no amount of monetary compensation can buy back human lives.

While there has been justifiable reaction by the Indian Govt., with anguish, we are forced to think why no such serious action or even thought-process emerges when the fishermen from Tamilnadu are fired at in midsea and get killed when they are unarmed……..

With regards – S. Sampathkumar.
17th  Feb 2012.

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