A flag of convenience can be detrimental to Seamen

A “flag of convenience" is a popular loophole used by large boat owners to evade international maritime laws and save taxes. But this practice can be detrimental for mariners when a crisis strikes, as depicted by the insolence of Azal Shipping & Cargo, the owner of Iceberg 1, a ship that was assaulted by Somalian pirates, and the government of Panama, the flag of convenience for the Iceberg 1.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) requested Panama to contribute financially to help the crew of the Iceberg 1, recently released from a hellish kidnapping. The sailors of the Panamanian-flagged ship remained nearly three years kidnapped by Somali pirates; they were subjected to torture, starvation and even mutilation before being released in December, 2012, after an armed confrontation.

The first officer is still missing, presumed dead, and one sailor committed suicide during captivity. The remaining 22 hostages are in their home countries, but they need urgent help to rebuild their lives. The trauma they were deliberately subjected to has left psychological scars. Many of them suffer medical problems.

On top of the brutal kidnapping, the mariners’ employer, Azal Shipping & Cargo, stopped their pay as soon as they were captured. Some of the abused sailors have returned home to families who have been devastated by the nearly three-year interruption of financial support.

ITF seafarers’ section chair Dave Heindel stated: “There is a good understanding across the shipping industry of just how much these seafarers and their families have suffered over the last three years, and it’s no surprise that some people in the industry have offered financial support. However, we’d particularly like the flag state, which in this case is Panama, to join them and us in sponsoring this relief effort".

He continued: “It is unfortunate that the flag state has not discharged its duty of care set out by the IMO to these seafarers during their captivity, even though they were serving on a vessel flying its flag. There is now an opportunity for it to contribute to their support and rehabilitation."

He concluded: “The cruel and barbaric treatment meted out to these mariners must serve as a constant reminder of why pirates have to be fought, pursued and prosecuted."

The Iceberg 1 had been held by Somali pirates since March 2010. The ship owner, Azal Shipping of Dubai, abandoned the vessel uninsured when it was captured. The company paid no wages to either the seafarers or their families. Twenty-two crew members were freed during gun battles in December, 2012: eight Yemenis, five Indians, four Ghanaians, two Pakistanis, two Sudanese and one Filipino. One seafarer, Wagdi Akdram, a Yemeni, was driven to suicide by his ordeal. The fate of the Indian chief officer, Dhiraj Tiwari, is unknown. He was tortured and separated from the other crew. Another hostage had his ears mutilated. All the mariners were subjected to torture and starvation. Panama, the flag of convenience state, has not provided assistance to the captured crew. This situation demonstrates one of the many problems arising from the use of flags of convenience. The flag of convenience state may not take the needed and required responsibilities when abuses occur. Not only did Azal Shipping get away with not paying its workers, Panama ignored its responsibilities to the captured sailors and their families.

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