Industry Unites for Prestige Captain

Captain Apostolos Mangouras

By MarEx 2016-05-03 20:36:40

In a show of solidarity, the European Transport Workers Federation (ETF) and the European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA) have united to condemn the recent sentencing of Prestige master Apostolos Mangouras.

Spain's Supreme Court sentenced the captain of the Prestige oil tanker, which sank off Spain's northwestern coast in 2002, covering thousands of kilometers of coastline in fuel oil, to two years in prison in January. Mangouras was convicted of recklessness resulting in catastrophic environmental damage, according to a statement by the court, overturning a previous sentence which cleared him of criminal responsibility.

The two organizations have stated that they stand ready to show their full support for Mangouras and are willing to travel to Greece to meet with him and make it publicly clear they remain determined to stand firm against the trend in criminalization of seafarers.

The European Social Partners in Maritime Transport – ETF and ECSA – are extremely concerned about the recent court decision in the Prestige case as it unexpectedly overturned the judgment by the Provincial Court of La Coruña (Galicia) which had yet cleared both the master and the chief engineer of criminal responsibility.

Judges have now convicted Mangouras of gross negligence for his decisions during the voyage and his actions as events unfolded. But this decision is nothing less than a further proof – one time too many – of the ill-treatment of seafarers that began as early at the time of accident and which, in the case of Mangouras, has continued for an agonizing period of fourteen long and stressful years of judicial harassment, says the Social Partners.

The Provincial Court judgment found Mangouras innocent for the simple reason that he bravely fulfilled his professional duty in attempting to save his ship. Confronted with a refusal by the Spanish authorities to give the damaged ship a place of refuge (where an oil spill could have been contained), not only the master but also the chief engineer and the chief officer remained on board the vessel, whilst the hull was breached and the risk of capsize was dramatically increasing. 

Under pressure from the Spanish authorities, the master had to take a series of actions against his will that resulted in the damaged tanker being forced to remain out at sea in dreadful conditions, where it eventually broke in two and sank off the coast of Galicia.

The Social Partners cannot accept that seafarers should have to pay such a heavy price whilst the Maritime Authority, who had been exempted from any liability, ordered the vessel away from any port of refuge, with well-known catastrophic effects upon the natural environment.

It is beyond dispute that seafarers are too often used as easy scapegoats upon whom to shift all the responsibility for possible environmental damages, and unfairly sued - sometimes in flagrant breach of their fundamental rights, say the Social Partners.

In addition, the Social Partners fear that such a ruling will impact negatively on the attractiveness of a seafaring career and hence on the future recruitment of young competent seafarers. At a time when ECSA and ETF – together with the European Commission – are looking to promote the European maritime profession and render it attractive to young Europeans, the Supreme Court’s judgement sends entirely the wrong signal.

Against this background, it is the industry’s duty to condemn and rebut in the strongest terms the Supreme Court’s judgement. It criminalizes seafarers with no evidence and makes it clearer than ever that there is a strong case for securing the supervision and implementation of the IMO/ILO Guidelines on fair treatment of seafarers in the event of a maritime accident of June 12, 2006, and the new E.U. Operational Guidelines on Places of Refuge of November 13, 2015. The latter have been developed jointly with the shipping industry, with the specific aim of avoiding a repetition of the mistakes made during the Prestige and MSC Flaminia incidents. It is therefore ironic that this judgment just comes at a time when the proper implementation of these guidelines could have prevented the worst from happening.

ETF and ECSA sincerely hope that this wholly unjustified sentence will not be served, as logic suggests a man who is past 80 and deeply marked by injustice cannot again be pointlessly sent to jail.

At a meeting of the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds (IOPCF) last week, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) also strongly criticized the judgement of the Spanish Supreme Court. 

“The Supreme Court’s decision was extremely surprising in that it overturned a lower court’s acquittal of the master, in his absence, and without hearing any new evidence as to his knowledge about the condition of the ship. This raises fundamental questions as to whether it was a fair trial,” said the ICS statement. 

ICS says that the actions by the Spanish government to pursue its claims against the shipowner, for what are expected to be enormous amounts in excess of the shipowner’s limits of liability, could seriously undermine the system of shared liability that has been agreed under the CLC/Fund liability and compensation regime.