After 18 long months, South Korea to free two Indian sailors (Lead)

May 28th, 2009 - 8:35 pm ICT by IANS  

By Dipankar De Sarkar
London, May 28 (IANS) Two Indian sailors, who have been detained in South Korea for close to 18 months for an oil spillage that they are widely thought to be innocent of, are to be set free within two weeks, Indian diplomatic sources said Thursday.

South Korean diplomats at the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London have said they expect Jasprit Chawla, captain of the Hebei Spirit, and Chief Officer Shyam Chetan to be allowed to fly back within two weeks, Indian diplomats told IANS.

The South Koreans gave the assurance Wednesday to Capt. M.M. Saggi, nautical adviser to New Delhi and leader of the Indian delegation to the latest round of discussions at the IMO.

Despite repeated protestations by New Delhi and most major international shipping and transport bodies, the two sailors have been incarcerated in South Korea since Dec 7, 2007, when a crane barge owned by Samsung rammed into their Hong Kong-registered oil tanker in stormy weather.

The accident near Taean on the country’s west coast caused a spillage of 10,000 tonnes of oil - thought to be South Korea’s worst.

Wednesday’s assurance came after Indian diplomats told the IMO they welcomed a recent judgment by the South Korean Supreme Court overturning the jail sentence on the two men.

Throughout their detention, India has protested the innocence of the two sailors.

In addition, their cause was taken up globally by a number of powerful shipping and maritime organisations, including the Asian Shipowners’ Forum, the Federation of ASEAN Shipowners’ Associations; the International Ship Managers Association and the International Transport Workers Federation.

“These men have been away from their near and dear ones for nearly a year now, and their release will have the wide support of the seafaring community,” Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, India’s High Commissioner to Britain and Permanent Representative to the IMO, said in October 2008.

Their only fault, said India and international shipping groups, was to have been aboard the Hebei Spirit when the South Korean barge broke loose from one of its tug-boats and collided with the tanker.

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