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By John Helmer, Moscow

In Russia, and at sea aboard Russian ships, it’s common for crews not to be paid; the shipowners usually get away with it, at least as far as the General Prosecutor, Yury Chaika, is concerned.. The tale of the Lyubov Orlova, whose two Russian owners abandoned the cruise ship at a Canadian port, defaulted on their port, agent and fuel debts, and marooned the crew without salary or food, is a salutary example.

Not paying Russian seamen, and forcing them to work without pay, forcibly preventing them from leaving the ship, denying them medical treatment if they are injured, and locking them up to die – well, Chaika’s Vladivostok bureau for prosecuting transport offences has decided to bring charges under Article 127, Part 2, of the Russian Criminal Code. This follows the deaths of two Russian mariners aboard the Russian-owned, Tuvalu-flagged motor ship, SS Ross. It is the first time in living memory that illegal deprivation of an individual’s freedom for the purpose of compelling him to work – slave labour – has ever been charged in a Russian court.

Article 127. Illegal Deprivation of Liberty

1. Illegal deprivation of a person’s liberty, which is not related to his abduction, shall be punishable by restraint of liberty for a term of up to three years, or by arrest for a term of three to six months, or deprivation of liberty for a term of up to two years.

2. The same deed committed:
a) by a group of persons under a preliminary conspiracy;
b) repeatedly;
c) with the use of violence with danger for human life and health;
d) with the use of weapons or objects used as weapons;
e) against an obvious juvenile;
f) against a woman who is in a state of pregnancy, which is evident to the convicted person;
g) against two or more persons,
shall be punishable by deprivation of liberty for a term of three to five years.

3. Deeds provided for by the first or second parts of this Article, if they have been committed by an organized group or have entailed by negligence the death of the victim, or any other grave consequences, shall be punishable by deprivation of liberty for a term of four to eight years.

The two victims have been identified by the prosecutors as Vladimir Kraevoy, who died aboard the Ross on August 30, 2011, when the vessel was under way in the Persian Gulf; and Konstantin Udilov, who died on January 17, when the Ross was off Indonesia. Details of the cases have been confirmed to Fairplay by Natalia Salkina, spokesman for the fareastern bureau of the transportation sector arm of the General Prosecutor’s Investigative Committee. Kraevoy was allegedly forced to remain on board and denied medical treatment for injuries sustained while he was at work on the vessel. Udilov’s wife is charging that her husband was beaten to death on board.

Salkina told Fairplay today that separate investigations of the two deaths have now been combined into a single case in which the charges to be filed are of slave labour, including illegal detention.

Efforts by crew members to file complaints against the shipowner and its Vladivostok operator led to an inspection by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) in the Indian port of Kandla last December. According to Igor Kovalchuk, first deputy chairman of the Russian Seafarers Union, “although in our experience this is the first time we have seen a case of criminal proceedings under this [Criminal Code] article, this doesn’t mean that cases of non-payment by shipowners of wages to seafarers haven’t happened before. This occurs quite often. For example, at the moment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the fishing vessel Tulen-6, which is Russian flagged, is berthed without work, where salary is not being paid, the crew is not being repatriated, and money for food has had to be provided by our union.”

Salkina and the prosecutors have yet to identify by name the Russian owners of the Ross, although the investigation of Kraevoy’s death has been under way for months.

Kovalchuk told Fairplay “it is rather difficult to figure out who is the real shipowner. The flag-of-convenience scheme is used very widely, when vessels are registered in countries with weak regulatory regimes. Regarding this matter, the lead company for the Ross in the Fareast is Sea Service Shipping Ltd. But there is no reliable information that they are the owners. They are managers of ships, carry out crew recruitment, and operate the fleet. In Novorossiysk, the Ross worked with Marine Shipping Services Ltd. But apparently that was a one-time job for them, because the ship was at Novorossiysk and it was necessary to recruit additional crew there.”

Another vessel, operated by the same Vladivostok owner and known as SS Veles, is also the target of the new investigation, Salkina confirms, and charges are being prepared, she said, under the same slave labour article targeted at the same alleged owners. The Ross was launched in 1983 and is classified as a bulk-cargo carrier of 12,319 dwt; the Veles came from the same yard at the same time and is a container carrier of 12,402 dwt; it is also flagged in Tuvalu.

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