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Agreement Between Switzerland and Nigeria Ends 3-Year Tanker Detention

three year tanker detention ends international incident
Product tanker San Padre Pio has been detained since January 2018 (ABC Maritime photo)

Published May 21, 2021 5:19 PM by The Maritime Executive

Swiss authorities announced that they have completed an agreement for the release of a Swiss product tanker that has been detained by Nigeria for over three years. The detention created an international incident that the Swiss had taken to the United Nation’s International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

According to a statement from the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, following extensive diplomatic efforts in collaboration with the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research and the Federal Department of Finance, a memorandum of understanding providing for the immediate release of the vessel was signed on May 20, 2021. “It is now incumbent on Nigeria to release the vessel and on the companies involved in operating the San Padre Pio to take the necessary operational measures for the actual departure of the vessel,” the statement said.

The MT San Padre Pio is registered in Switzerland and managed by Swiss shipping company ABC Maritime. The 7,600 dwt vessel was chartered for bunkering business by Augusta Energy in West Africa when on January 23, 2018, the vessel was intercepted by the Nigerian Navy. The tanker, which had been engaged in the ship-to-ship transfer of gasoil, was ordered by the Nigerians to sail to Port Harcourt, where it remained at anchor under detention.

Nigerian authorities charged the vessel with smuggling diesel fuel and violating the Nigerian Exclusive Economic Zone. The managers and Switzerland denied all the charges, contending that the vessel was operating in international waters.

Efforts by the company and Swiss diplomatic efforts failed to free the vessel. Unable to reach a diplomatic solution, Switzerland filed a case before ITLOS, which is based in Hamburg.

Switzerland asked the tribunal to order the immediate release of the vessel, saying Nigeria was holding the vessel illegally and that the ship and crew were in danger. They reported that the ship had been attacked by the pirates in the region in April 2019.

The maritime tribunal in July 2019 ordered without deciding on the merits of Switzerland’s claims that the vessel should be released. They ordered that a bond of $14 million be posted and that the vessel’s operators agree to return to Nigeria for future legal proceedings. The tribunal left open for a later decision the question of if Nigeria had violated international law with the seizure and arrest of the tanker.

The vessel’s manager, ABC Maritime, told SWI swissinfo.ch that it had successfully defended itself in front of the Nigerian High Court. They said that the vessel and its crew were acquitted as the court had found them not guilty. The acquitted crew were safely repatriated.

Since the agreement between the governments of Switzerland and Nigeria calls for the immediate release of the tanker, Swiss authorities said they would terminate the legal proceeding that is still pending before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea once the vessel returns to international waters.