Sailors stranded in Fujairah now free to go home

Legal dispute over Dh10 million delayed cargo delivery left crew without visas and stuck on a seized vessel at port for more than a year.

The crew members aboard the Azraq 7 ship in Fujairah. The vessel was arrested by the UAE authorities in December 2009 after a Somalian company filed a case against the ship's owners. The crew have been aboard the ship since then. They haven't been paid salaries for the last 18 months and are now waiting to go back home, after recovering their wages. 
Courtesy Mission to Seafarers.
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DUBAI // Crew members of a ship entangled in a legal dispute say they hope to be reunited with their families soon - more than a year after their vessel was seized by UAE authorities.

Three Indians and a Pakistani national aboard the Azraq 7, anchored in Fujairah, hope to be on their way home soon once they recover their pending salaries.

The ship's release follows its judicial sale by the Khor Fakkan Court earlier this month.

The sailors, who likened their situation to "dying a slow death" on the rusty vessel, said they were glad their ordeal was ending.

They are waiting for the court's formalities to be complete and to be paid from the sale proceeds. Their wages, due for the past 18 months, range from US$300 (Dh1,100) to $3,000 per month.

"We have been informed that the ship has been sold and our salaries will be paid soon," said Navneeth Mani Tripati, a 19-year-old sailor. "We are waiting for a clearance letter from the court to get our wages. My family has been calling me regularly and I have been promising them I will be with them soon. However, until we have our wages in hand, I will be very anxious."

The crew has endured extreme weather conditions and power cuts, and has depended on handouts since their vessel was seized in December 2009. The seizure came after a Somalian company sued the ship's owners for delayed cargo delivery. Since then, the owners have been difficult to track down.

"We have been under a lot of financial and mental stress," said Manoj Kumar, a 22-year-old Indian sailor. "The generator has not been working properly and we have had irregular power supply.

"The situation has been extremely depressing and we have had only each other to talk to."

Dhananjay Rao, also 22 and from India, said: "I am the sole breadwinner of my family and I haven't been able to send any money home for the past several months. We have been living on the food provided by charity organisations and the UAE authorities. We can't wait to be back with our families."

All of the sailors except one has been prevented from leaving the ship, as they do not hold valid UAE visas. Capt Mazin Abdulaziz, one of the two captains aboard, was allowed to leave the ship in February since he had a residence visa.

He was contracted in April 2009 by the shipping company to work on the company's other ship, Al Sama, but was later ordered to help Azraq 7, which was then stranded in Oman due to engine trouble.

"In May 2009, Azraq 7 started its voyage to Mogadishu from the Ajman anchorage. Soon after, it had engine trouble in Masirah Island, Oman, and Al Sama was sent by the company to tow Azraq 7 and help the crew on board. After bringing the ship under control, we anchored Azraq 7 at Dibba and Al Sama at Fujairah, on December 12. Upon our arrival, coastguards placed Al Sama under arrest," said Capt Abdulaziz, a 35-year-old Sudanese sailor.

The cargo company filed a case against the ship's owners for failing to deliver the cargo to Mogadishu on time. The owners had taken Dh10 million to deliver diesel but, according to the crew's law firm, they had neither delivered the cargo nor repaid the money.

Capt Abdulaziz said authorities subsequently released Al Sama in June last year, but took a part of the crew by force to Azraq 7, where they have been ever since.

Following the seizure, the ship was anchored outside the port limit, which is about 16 nautical miles from Fujairah Port. It was later ordered inside the port limits for safety reasons. It was recently brought to the Fujairah Naval Base after it lost its anchor.

The Mission to Seafarers, which often helps sailors in trouble, has been helping the crew with food and fresh water, besides providing them with phone cards worth thousands of dirhams to contact their families.

"We are very grateful that they will receive their salaries and can go home soon," said the Rev Peter Chase, the welfare officer at the mission.

"The conditions the crew have been subjected to are deplorable. However, they haven't received any different treatment here than anywhere else. This could have happened in many other countries. The legal process takes time and that is the issue."

The charity organisation said the money from the ship's sale had been paid to the court.

Fichte & Co, which has been providing legal assistance to the crew, said Azraq 7 had been judicially sold after the Somalian company won the case. "The case is now with the court's accounting department," said Alessandro Tricoli, a legal consultant at the firm who is in charge of the case. "The crew should be able to receive their salaries, including their repatriation cost as per their contract, in the next couple of weeks."

Under maritime law, the crew's wages are considered a "privileged debt", he said. "Hence the court will be considering the crew's claim for salaries from the sale of the ship as a priority claim over the debtors."

He said the complication stemmed from the fact that the owners were unreachable.

The Indian consulate said it was aware of the issue and was working with the authorities.