Not first brush with law for ship owner
The mystery surrounding the ship caught at Tuticorin port with a cache of arms and ammunition continues to deepen, with the focus shifting on US-based Arab billionaire Samir Farajallah, who owns AdvanFort, which in turn owns MV Seaman Guard Ohio.
Sources said Farajallah has open access to Pentagon. They say he is acting as facilitator for US companies in war-torn countries of Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan through enterprise conferences. These are meetings with officials in war-torn countries, who are tasked with big budgets—mostly grants from the US—and powers to reconstruct infrastructure in their countries. At the enterprise conferences, each participant has to pay a minimum $2,000 to get just a 15-minute interview with the officer responsible. After the Iraq war was over, Farajallah had organised the Iraq summit where he promised delegates private one-on-one meetings with US military officers, Iraq government ministers and prime contractors to grab Iraqi projects. Farajallah founded AdvanFort in Virginia in 2009. It has regional offices in London, Dubai and Manila, providing maritime security, intelligence operations, and armed security personnel for a hefty price. Interestingly, this was not the first known instance when Farajallah had a brush with the law. In July 2011, his son, Ahmed Farajallah, was arrested in Virginia for illegally procuring 26 automatic weapons to be used for AdvanFort counter-piracy ships abroad. A case was filed against Ahmed and two others in Eastern District Court of Virginia. The judgement of the court reveals that AdvanFort had pleaded guilty to the Criminal Information. According to a maritime website Gcaptain, the weapons were eventually destroyed and AdvanFort in March 2013, pleaded guilty to “Aiding and Abetting the Making of a False Statement during the Acquisition of Firearms”.
A final judgement in the case pronounced on September 5, 2013 by Eastern District of Virginia Court barred AdvanFort from purchasing and possessing firearms in the US and asked the company to pay $180,000 in fines. However, the court said the company is not barred by these conditions of probation from lawfully acquiring and possessing legal firearms abroad for purpose of conducting their security and counter-piracy business. According to a 2009 report of Public Education Center, the corporate licence of Farajallah’s ‘New-Field Exhibitions’ was revoked several times and it was not authorised to operate in Washington or anywhere in the US.
ANTI-PIRACY INDUSTRY: The anti-pirate industry, which provides protection to ships and seamen, is a billion-dollar business. Investigators say that with the capture of the MV Seaman Guard Ohio, the contours of the shady multi-billion mercenary business in the unregulated shipping industry is slowly coming to light. Wary of ruthless Somali pirates operating in Gulf of Aden, Red Sea and the southern part of the Indian Ocean, shippers are more than willing to shell out $75,000 to $90,000 as escort fees instead of paying millions of dollars in ransom. In the wake of the threat to merchant ships, more than 320 private maritime security companies have mushroomed the world over, often flouting maritime laws of many countries. Of these, 67 companies are registered in Panama alone.
In the last seven years, it is estimated that approximately $385 million in ransom was paid to pirates to rescue over 150 hijacked vessels. According to the United Nation’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO), Somali pirates attacked 286 ships and dhows in 2011 and hijacked 33. In 2012, the number of attacks dropped to 99 and only 13 ships and dhows were hijacked for ransom. But, despite the sharp decline in ocean piracy, private security companies managed to corner over $1.7 billion as escort fees from shippers in 2012. The threat of piracy has made security companies, mostly operating out of the US and UK, rich and powerful.
FLAUNTING THE LAW: Pointing out an interesting trend in the private maritime security business, a senior official said all these small boats are known to carry flags of tax haven countries including Sierra Leone, Bahamas, Panama and Republic of Kiribati to escape accountability and taxes. MV Seaman too was operating under a Sierra Leone flag, though the security company is registered in Virginia, US.
“It is a corporate veil to flaunt the law and hide their responsibility and actions in international water. The United States Maritime Administration should also be held accountable for such loopholes. Intelligence agencies, I’m told would be looking into the port of registry to check whether the weapons aboard MV Seaman Guard Ohio were registered with them or not,” he said.
VEIL OF SECRECY: L’Affaire Seaman Guard Ohio has stirred up a storm in India. Sources said MV Seaman Guard Ohio failed to confirm whether the weapons aboard were procured from another ship covering the area or from a floating armoury cruising in international waters. “On two previous occasions, it did not declare the arms on board, which means the weapons were loaded after September 9. Who gave the clearance, why and how are the questions that need to be investigated,” a source said.
According to New Internationalist, a UK-based magazine, there are 18 floating armouries in the Red Sea, Gulf of Oman and Mozambique Channel, all of which rent out weapons outside territorial waters so as to sidestep weapons regulations. It said the contractors operate in an accountability vacuum. “No global treaties cover weapons fire from commercial ships.”
Calling these companies Corporate Mercenary, a UK based Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) report said that the upper ranks of many of these companies are filled with former US and UK army officers.
“Governments, such as that of the UK, find the services of these companies cheaper than using regular armed forces, because many of the personnel come from Iraq or from poor countries like Nepal and Fiji and are willing to serve for a fraction of a regular soldier’s pay,” CAAT Said.
MISSING DETAILS: A representative of AdvanFort, Thomas Chacko, who is based in Dubai said the company operates in high risk zones and the Seaman Ohio was operating to secure a certain area in the Indian Ocean. However, Thomas failed to provide details of the arms and ammunition on board. He said, “Everything is accountable and all documents were handed over to the authorities.” Thomas also refused to reveal the destination of ship and the areas it covered in the last two to three months.
Sources said after leaving Sharjah sometime in June-July, the ship was first spotted in Indian waters when it berthed at Kochi port in August. At that time, it did not declare its weapons on board.
A month later, Seaman Guard Ohio met with an accident and was rescued by the Indian Coast Guard. “Even then nothing suspicious was noticed by the authorities,” sources said.
Former chief of Indian Coast Guard, Vice Admiral (retd) A K Singh said the ship was anchored within Indian territorial water without obtaining prior permissions, which is illegal. “While verifying the facts about the weapons and the license is job of investigating agencies, the illegal procurement of diesel from a fish trawler is a serious offence. They need to inform Indian authorities 96 hours in advance if they plan to enter Indian territory,” Singh said.
Pealtnägija, an Estonian TV network, in a special broadcast in 2011 revealed that weapons provided by AdvanFort, which is touted as the biggest anti-piracy contractor in Estonia, lack the necessary documents and are not even registered in the country. The MV Seaman Guard had 14 Estonian armed guards on board when Coast guard intercepted the vessel.
“AdvanFort has on some occasions put Estonians aboard ships without arming them at all. Another problem is that the weapons provided lack the necessary legal documents,” the channel had claimed.
A detailed questionnaire sent to AdvanFort President William H. Watson did not elicit a response till the time of going to press.