Voyage of a nightmare | Sunday Observer

Voyage of a nightmare

16 January, 2022

The Panama-flagged MV Wakashio was sailing under pleasant weather off the east coast of Mauritius when it all happened without a warning at a location known as Pointe d’ Esny.

The bulk carrier owned by a Japanese company with a 21-member crew had rammed into an underwater coral reef badly damaging the vessel and it started taking in water almost instantly.

Two weeks after the incident the ship began to spew oil into the ocean owing to structural damage to the vessel as it kept continuously striking the reef for a considerable period of time.

Oil spill

Chief Officer H. S. J. Tilakaratne 

The oil spill from the ship severely destroyed marine life and tourism which is the chief source of income to Mauritius and it led to a call for the maximum punishment for those responsible.

The incident took place on July 25, 2020 and that day was also to be the beginning of an ordeal for a Sri Lankan Chief Officer (the vessel’s second in command) who was among the crew.

Chief Officer Subodha Tilakaratne was unfortunate to be on navigational watch together with the captain at the time of the incident and would soon end as a chief suspect in the legal proceedings that were to follow in a Mauritian Court.

Packing a service of over 25 years at sailing it was the first time that the Sri Lankan Chief Officer had faced such a situation and moreover in foreign waters.

After spending two years in a Mauritian Jail, Chief Officer Tillekeratne returned to his family in Kurunegela at the start of this year.

Tillekeratne’s Japanese employer, the International Transport workers’ Federation (ITF) the Sri Lankan Government, Lankan diplomats in Mauritius and other affiliates in the maritime industry and elsewhere worked together to secure the release of the Chief Officer who was initially facing a 60-year jail term.

The story as told by him:

As most of you would be aware, I was detained in Mauritius due to the tragic grounding of MV Wakashio which occurred at Pointe d’Esny, off the east coast of Mauritius, on July, 25, 2020, at a time when I was unfortunately on navigational watch together with the Master of the vessel.

Two weeks after the grounding, there was an oil spill in the nearby area due to structural damages to the vessel as it kept continuously striking a reef for a significant period of time.

Root cause

Firstly, I wish to express my deepest regret for this unexpected accident and tender my sincere apologies to the owner of MV

Wakashio, my employer, Anglo Eastern Ship Management, the whole Seafarer community as well as to the citizens of Mauritius, though deep inside my heart, I am still convinced that the root cause of this accident was not due to my fault.

For those who want to know how life went on from the day of grounding till of day of my repatriation to my home country, here is a summary:

From July, 25, 2020, I remained onboard the wrecked ship together with the other crew members until we were air-lifted by the Mauritian authorities on August, 5, 2020 where we were placed in a hotel for quarantine purposes. On August, 18, 2020, that is, 24 days after the accident, the Master and I were arrested under a provisional charge of “Unlawful interference with navigational equipment endangering safe navigation” which is one of the highest charges under Mauritian maritime law, carrying a maximum sentence of 60 years’ penal servitude.

Since August, 22, 2020, I was provided with legal assistance for police inquiry and Court procedures, as arranged by the ship owner/insurer, who retained the services of Counsel Amira Peeroo.

In October 2020, a bail motion was presented in the Mauritian Court so that I could benefit from bail pending trial, however, the Court refused to grant bail on a supposed risk of absconding. On December, 22, 2020, following a motion of my Counsel, the prosecution proceeded to replace the previous provisional charge with a new one and this time, the charge was under the UNCLOS for breach of innocent passage, carrying a maximum of five years of imprisonment and maximum fine of MUR 30 million, but still no bail was granted, based again on the risk of absconding.

Prosecution Office

The police inquiry was only completed around June 2021 after which the file was sent to the Prosecution Office for lodging of the main case. On December 15, 2021, both the Master and I were formally charged with the lowest possible charge under Mauritian maritime law, one of “Endangering safe navigation” under the Merchant Shipping Act, carrying a maximum imprisonment of 2 years and maximum fine of MUR 50,000.

So, basically, after our version was recorded in the defence statements as assisted by our Counsel, the authorities had gone down from a charge of 60 years of penal servitude to one of 2 years’ imprisonment. By that time, I had almost completed 16 months of pre-trial detention.

Although I was advised by my legal advisor that there is the possibility to prove my innocence during trial even under this lowest formal charge, I nevertheless decided to plead guilty to the said charge since the time that I had spent on remand in detention (together with remission time) would already have covered the maximum sentence of 24 months.

It was the only way I had to secure my return to my home country, to my family as soon as possible since fighting the case in Mauritian Courts could take months or even years.

My legal advisor understood my mental and emotional stress and completely supported my decision to plead guilty and submitted a plea in mitigation on my behalf.

Unfortunately though, my humble view based on my experience is that there are quite some uncommon features in the Mauritian justice system which may result in a denial of justice, especially for foreign citizens!

Bail is denied on the risk of absconding without any proof of guilt; there is no limit to pre-trial detention; assurances given by States are not taken into account; police enquiry takes long to get completed and in the end, the fastest and most convenient way for such accused parties to get out of this nightmare may be to plead guilty, irrespective of actual guilt.

My family

On December, 27, 2021, I was sentenced to 20 months’ of imprisonment and after taking into consideration time spent on remand together with remission time, I was finally released from detention the next day, that is, on December, 28, 2021. I still wonder how people can be made to serve a sentence before having proven any case against them! And if such is the case with the best legal representation, I fear to even wonder what happens to those accused parties who do not have the means to afford legal assistance.

Well, that was the darkest and most difficult time in my life and in the lives of my loved ones. However, thankfully, all that is now in the past and there is no point in prolonging the suffering in the future. I only pray that none of the Seafarer community has to face such terrible experience, otherwise, few would have the courage to enter the seafaring field.

Difficult time

That being my story, I cannot forget those who have been supporting me and my family all throughout this difficult time. The contribution of one and all is greatly appreciated, and words would not be enough to express my gratitude to each one of you.

I would like to thank the owner of MV Wakashio and Japanese P&I Club for providing very good legal assistance for judicial procedures.

Also, my employer, Anglo Eastern Ship Management, has provided a remarkable support to me and the other crew members by looking after our welfare, by showing their commitment and not abandoning us and this obviously proves AESM is one of the best manning agents in the world. The coordination done by the Sri Lankan representative office “Yamsas (Pvt) Ltd” is also very much appreciated.

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the Sri Lankan Government including the President, the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Foreign Relations, the Ministry of Shipping and other authorities and especially the High Commissioner for Mauritius, Srimal Wickramasinghe and Tharushi Gunathilaka, for providing assurance in judicial procedures and ensuring my well-being throughout the time I was in detention. It really made me proud of being a Sri Lankan citizen.

My sincere regards to the International Transport Workers Federation for urging relevant authorities to release us and repatriate the crew members and for representing Seafarers’ rights. My special thanks to the UK Head Office and to Ranjan Perera in the Colombo Office.

Prison friends

Also, I am happy to have known the Mauritian authorities including police, prison and inquiring officers and I thank all those who have helped me in one way or the other. For those Mauritian citizens who have assisted me in various ways and in different occasions, many thanks to you.

All my prison friends, the moral support and encouragement you have given to me while I was in detention, simply one word “Unforgettable”! Thanks a lot; you made prison survivable.

There are two unforgettable and remarkable persons who helped me throughout my stay in Mauritius. They are the Honorary Consul of Sri Lanka in Mauritius, Dharam Dhuny, and my Counsel (legal advisor), Amira Peeroo.

Their great humility, hospitality and kindness is very much appreciated. Thanks a lot for providing me all the essentials during my detention and making sure of my good health and safety.

Counsel Peeroo

I recognise Counsel Amira Peeroo as one of the best lawyers in Mauritius. Her vast knowledge in legal aspects and guidance was incredible. She was always there to advise me with respect to the legal procedures and legal options available in given circumstances.

She was very efficient in formally communicating with several stakeholders, like the High Commissioner of Sri Lanka, the Honorary Consul of Sri Lanka in Mauritius, the Office of the DPP, the Commissioner of Police, to ensure the best representation for me.

She even persevered to understand technical maritime and navigational matters allowing her to fully understand my defence. I would highly recommend her for her determination and professionalism.

I am very grateful to everyone including my family members / relations, well-wishers, friends, including childhood, school, University and from the Seafarer community and ex-lecturers, amongst others who were there with me during this difficult situation and sharing the psychological and emotional pain with my family by calling them and even visiting my home.

Also, many thanks to members of NDA/ UOM, OBA/ Maliyadeva College, other organisations /institutions and those who provided support for technical and legal matters.

It is not possible to mention names of everyone who has extended their support in one way or the other since the list will be too long. However, you are all in my mind forever. A friend in need is a friend indeed!


NUSS decries CO’s detention

Palitha Atukorale

A maritime trade union condemned the detention of Chief Officer Subodha Tilakaratne saying ‘criminilising of Seafarers for a simple mistake was a dangerous trend towards the industry.

“This should never have been the case, the matter could have been solved in a more civilised manner, simply because it was a genuine navigational mistake’, President of the National Union of Seafarers Sri Lanka (NUSS) Palitha Atukorale said.

He said that of late more and more Seafarers have faced criminal charges for navigational errors which is a dangerous trend.

If this allowed to continue it would discourage Seafarer hopefuls from signing on board a vessel, he said.

‘’Life and work on a ship is not a walk in the park. It takes a lot of hard work, commitment and above all courage to be a crew member on a vessel and one has to understand this factor’, Atukorale said.

The NUSS along with the International Transport workers’ Union (ITF) is set to raise the matter at international forums in a bid to persuade relevant authorities to have a re-think prior to filing criminal charges on Seafarers for simple navigational errors, Atukorale said.