Image caption, Sixteen Indians are part of a multinational crew of 26 sailors whose cargo ship was detained by Equatorial Guinea
By Imran Qureshi
Sixteen Indians, who have been in the custody of Equatorial Guinea’s navy for three months, have appealed to Indian government to help them return home.
While India has assured their families that it was making efforts for their safe return, the sailors continue to share messages and videos, saying their situation is growing desperate.
Equatorial Guinea detained the cargo ship MT Heroic Idun in mid-August.
The Indians are part of a multinational crew of 26 sailors.
The ship is managed by Norway’s OSM Maritime Group.
“The vessel and its 26 multinational crew members have now been detained in Equatorial Guinea for more than 80 days,” CEO Finn Amund Norbye said in a statement earlier this week.
“The seafarers have been treated as criminals, without any formal charges or legal process for close to three months,” he alleged. “It is nothing short of a shocking maritime injustice.”
The ship’s crew was en route to pick up crude oil from Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria before heading to deliver it in Rotterdam, Holland.
Sapna Trehan, wife of the ship’s master Tanuj Mehta, says at Nigeria’s AKPO terminal, the ship was told to leave after officials insisted they had no information about their arrival.
As the ship moved towards Equatorial Guinea, it was followed by a vessel claiming to be from the Nigerian navy which alerted Equatorial Guinea, Ms Trehan’s husband told her, adding that the ship was detained on arrival there.
Documents filed in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea say that the Equatorial Guinea navy followed a maritime code of conduct and detained the vessel on an alert sent by the Nigerian naval vessel.
Since then, the crew has recorded videos and made phone calls to their families, begging for help.
The government of Equatorial Guinea has not publicly commented on the crew’s detention yet. The BBC has reached out to them for comment.
“The Norwegian [ship] owners also paid €2m ($2.03m; £1.74m) because the ship had not put up the Equatorial Guinea flag when it was in its territorial waters,” Capt Sukhpal Singh, a mariner and friend of the ship master told BBC Hindi.
Ms Trehan said that in the last few days, members of the crew had been separated and her husband’s phone was taken away.
Image caption, The crew members say they are terrified of being taken to Nigeria
“Fifteen of them have been taken away on the Equatorial Guinea naval ship and the others remain on the MT Heroic Idun, all of them are being guarded by Naval officials,” she said.
Earlier this week, concerns grew after the Equatorial Guinea’s vice-president tweeted that the ship would be handed over to Nigeria.
“Everyone was under the impression that the crew and the ship would be released once the fine was paid to Equatorial Guinea on 28 September. But suddenly Equatorial Guinea decided to accept Nigeria’s request,” Capt Rajesh Trehan, a retired mariner and father-in-law of Capt Tanuj Mehta, told the BBC.
In videos shared by families of crew members – which also include sailors from Sri Lanka, Philippines and Poland – they are heard saying, “Please, please, please help. Let us not be taken to Nigeria.”
“One of the primary reasons why there is heightened apprehension among the crew members is because of the previous experiences of crews in Nigeria,” Capt Trehan said.
In 2021, Nigeria released a Swiss tanker three years after it had been first detained.
“These countries have a bad track record [with sailors],” says Capt Singh. “People have just given up their careers after their experience in such countries.”
In a video sent to his wife, Capt Mehta alleges that the sailors “will die” if they are taken to Nigeria and asks the Indian government to bring them home as soon as possible.
“We don’t know what will happen to us, what they will do to us,” he says.
In another video, he alleges that the crew members on the ship would be forced to start the engines at gunpoint and taken to Nigeria. “We might never see our families again,” he says.
A video shared by the sailors also says that a crew member had been taken to hospital for poor health.
On Thursday, V Muraleedharan, India’s junior minister for external affairs, told media that several Indian embassies were holding discussions with authorities in Equatorial Guinea for the release of the sailors.
“The Minister for External Affairs [S Jaishankar] is regularly monitoring the situation, the families need not worry,” he said.
“Our efforts are aimed at getting our sailors back home safely,” he added.
The BBC reached out to Arindam Bagchi, Indian foreign ministry spokesman, but did not get a response.
Meanwhile, the sailors’ families remain concerned for their well-being.
Matilda, wife of Capt Jose, said her husband had been suffering from chest pain since he recovered from malaria recently.
He was shivering when she spoke to him two days ago, she said.
“He was very tired and had started feeling weak,” she told the BBC. “[A few days ago], they got some water and food when Indian embassy officials visited them. But after that they were [kept] in a detention centre.
“Right now, I don’t know if they are safe or not,” she said.