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Criminalisation of Seafarers.

Criminalisation can occur when seafarers are treated differently from other workers. The cases below show how the policies of port states can lead to the persecution of seafarers. AOS USA has campaigned for justice in one high profile case.

The Prestige

The story of the oil tanker Prestige is notorious. The ship is owned by a company registered in Liberia but flagged in the Bahamas. In 2002, the Prestige experienced difficulties off the coast of Spain. The captain’s request to bring the ship into port was refused. A heavy storm then caused the ship to break up and release its cargo of oil causing severe pollution to nearby coastlines and having a devastating effect on local fishing. The Greek captain was subsequently arrested and held by Spanish authorities. He eventually returned home to Greece in March 2005 but may have to return to Spain for trial in the future.

EU Directive on Criminal Sanctions for Pollution

Possibly in response to the Prestige case, in 2004 the European Union issued the Directive on Criminal Sanctions for Ship-Source Pollution. The aim of this measure was to deter illegal pollution by imposing harsh penalties. As a consequence, seafarers could be treated as criminals if they accidently cause pollution in the waters of any of the 27 countries of the European Union. This measure is currently being opposed by numerous maritime organisations including the International Transport Federation.

The Zim Mexico III

However the criminalisation of seafarers is not limited to Europe nor to cases of pollution. In 2006 Captain Wolfgang Shröder, from Germany, was charged with negligence resulting in the death of a man and forced to await trial in a US prison. The accident occurred in March 2006 on the Mobile River in Alabama. Acting on the advice of a pilot, Captain Shröder decided not to request a tug boat but instead to use the bow thrusters (propeller-like machinery) to turn his ship, the Zim Mexico III. Unfortunately the bow thrusters failed, the ship hit the dock knocking over a crane and killing the driver who was inside.

Shortly after formal charges were brought, the judge ordered that Captain Shröder be put in prison until the trial. The seafarer’s extensive international contacts meant that he was considered a “flight risk”. According to local press reports, he appeared in court wearing handcuffs and leg shackles. The charge of manslaughter carried a possible penalty of ten years in prison.

Resolution of AOS USA

In early February 2007, AOS USA approved a resolution addressing the criminalisation of seafarers. The resolution cites the case of Captain Shröder as an example of the unfair treatment of seafarers involved in maritime accidents. Father Sinclair Oubré, President of AOS USA, also wrote to the judge in the case and to Captain Shröder’s lawyer expressing support for the seafarer and concern at the tendency to criminalise individuals in cases of maritime accidents.

On 8 February 2007, Judge Granade freed Captain Shröder, ruling that the time he had already spent in prison was sufficient punishment. The judge used her discretionary powers in deciding not to bring a charge of manslaughter. Doreen Badeau, Secretary General of AOS USA, said  We are relieved and encouraged at the decision of the judge.


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