Pirates’ Prison

KIEV, Ukraine -- From economic crisis to gas crisis, from autumn into winter, 17 Ukrainian sailors have remained hostages aboard the MV Faina cargo ship, seized by Somali pirates on Sept. 25.

A photo released by the US Navy in 2008 shows the crew of the hijacked merchant vessel MV Faina.

The men are still waiting for rescue, amid reports that some of them are suffering poor health and that all of them are imprisoned in terrible conditions – enduring scorching temperatures off the lawless east African coast and spending most of their time in a cramped room aboard the hijacked ship.

After months of staying silent at the Ukrainian government’s request, relatives of the crew have run out of patience and are now speaking out. They are alarmed by the indifference and inability of the nation’s political leaders to free the crew after four months of captivity, the longest of any in a recent upsurge of high seas piracy in the Indian Ocean.

“Faina is a cold-blooded, slow and incredibly cynical murder of 17 boys, who were unlucky enough to be born on the territory, declared as independent Ukraine,” said Victor Shapovalov, father of crew member Denis Shapovalov.

“I don’t even dare to call it a state. A state, by definition, pre-supposes territory, population, government and a president. Ukraine is missing the two last ones,” Shapovalov said. “Nothing has been done in four months. Nothing. The government turned a deaf ear to its 17 citizens and we [parents] will find other ways to save their lives.”

The relatives of the Faina crew note that their sons’ captivity didn’t even rate a passing mention in either the New Year’s greeting of Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko or Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The sailors’ mothers also say they recently spent hours in the rain trying to get into the Presidential Secretariat, but were rebuffed. They note that the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a hyperlink to Euro 2012, the soccer championship to be co-hosted by Ukraine, but not to the Faina standoff.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs deny indifference and inaction, and has blamed the interference of third parties for scuttling talks to liberate the crew. Sources and reports identify the third person as Michele Ballarin, an American businesswoman with connections to United States intelligence whose self-described aim has been to turn Somalia from a failed state into a functioning country. Ballarin claims to be trying to broker a deal freeing all hijacked ships in the region and is quoted by military.com as saying: “My goal is to unwind all 17 ships and all 450 people they’ve been holding.”

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry “takes all necessary measure to rescue citizens,” according to spokesman Vasyl Kyrylych, noting that “according to international experience, state structures, as a rule, do not take a direct part in the negotiation process.”

So far, however, nobody appears to be successful in freeing the sailors.

Faina is owned by Israeli citizen Vadim Alperin, owner of Tomex Team, Inc., and a former deputy of the Odesa City Council. Many of the ship’s crew and their relatives are also from the Black Sea port city.

At a Jan. 22 news conference in Kyiv called by the crew’s relatives, Alperin’s representative said that negotiations with the pirates – more than 40 are believed to be aboard the ship – are making progress.

“We had already reached an agreement on a $1.7 million ransom,” said Victor Murenko, Alperin’s representative. Murenko, however, said that the pirates rejected some conditions and the deal fell apart. It was revived again on Jan. 21, Murenko said, when the two sides reached an agreement on the ransom amount. He expected release of the sailors within several days. But, as this Jan. 29 edition of the Kyiv Post went to press, the men were still in captivity.

So the desperate parents are trying everything to win the release of their loved ones. They are now planning to file a lawsuit against the government.

At their Jan. 22 news conference, the parents said they are tired of hearing stories about how negotiations were on the brink of success, only to be disrupted by various third parties.

“The informational vacuum is unbearable,” said Svetlana Mgeladze, mother of Faina crew member Roland Mgeladze. “We can’t stand anymore hearing ‘they have water, food and fuel; keep on waiting’ from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

On Jan. 25, parents of the Faina crew got a rare present: a brief phone call from the ship’s crew. Relatives say the credit for arranging the phone call goes not to the Ukrainian government, but to Abdi Muhammed Nur, a representative of the non-profit Human Rights Watch.

The telephone conversation was as troubling as it was brief.

“We bear up with our last bit of strength,” Denis Shapovalov told his father. He said that the sailors get only one meal a day – rice and noodles – and have irregular supplies of water and poor sanitary conditions. The parents also said their sons told them that the talks were stalled because the pirates wanted to deal directly with the ship’s owner, a step they say hadn’t been taken yet.

Besides the 17 Ukrainian crew members, two Russians and a Latvian are also aboard the ship. The vessel’s Russian captain, Vladimir Kolobkov, died of a heart attack two days after the hijacking. His remains are still on board, reportedly kept in a refrigerator.

The hostage ship’s complicated identity and mission are raising fears among parents that some Ukrainian government officials don’t want to see the ship returned.

The ship sailed under the Belize flag and carried 33 Soviet-type T-72 battle tanks along with other weapons and ammunition. While Ukraine and Kenya insist the tanks were bound for Kenya’s military, Agence France Presse reported that the United States and the pirates themselves have said the weapons were destined for rebels in southern Sudan. If true, the shipments would be in violation of a U.N. Security Council embargo on weapons trade with Sudan.

“I judge by the fact that absolutely nothing has been done,” said parent Svitlana Mgeladze. “Probably somebody wants it to be this way.”

If the shipments were destined for a prohibited destination, it wouldn’t be the first time that Ukrainian arms exports made scandalous international headlines. During the Leonid Kuchma era, Americans accused Ukraine of supplying Saddam Hussein-led Iraq with advanced radars. More recently, Russians accused Ukraine of supplying Georgians with weapons during the August war. While Ukraine has defended its right to sell arms to Georgia, the proof of radar sales to Iraq never materialized.

Oleksiy Tolkachev, head of the non-profit Public Committee of National Security, spoke at the Jan. 22 press conference and he agreed that the ship raises potentially troublesome questions for Ukraine. “Ukrainian weapons trafficking has created international scandal and is viewed as another foundation for the possible impeachment of Victor Yushchenko,” Tolkachev said. “If this ship comes back, an investigation will be held and many questions will be asked.”

Victor Shapovalov, father of Denis, a 33 year-old graduate of Odesa National Marine University, has no intention of giving up efforts to save all aboard the Faina. “I raised my son not to lose him to mercantile interests of some shabby leaders of this ‘formation,’” Shapovalov said, referring to Ukraine.

Source: Kyiv Post


coach hag said…
I pray that the pirates are brought to jsutice and the hostages are returned home safely.