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Hong Kong Tanker Owners Protest South Korean Indictment of Crew in Oil Spill


The owners of a Hong Kong-registered oil tanker involved in South Korea's worst oil spill say the South Korean decision to indict the ship's officers for the incident is unjust. The owners say the crew should in fact be commended. Claudia Blume reports from Hong Kong.

Last December, the Hebei Spirit, a Hong Kong-registered tanker, was at anchor off the west coast of South Korea.

A drifting South Korean crane barge, which had broken free from the tugboat towing it, punched holes in the tanker's sides. More than 10,000 tons of crude oil poured from the tanker into the sea, coating a 45-kilometer stretch of the coast. It was the largest oil spill in South Korean history.

This week, South Korean prosecutors indicted the director of Samsung Heavy Industries, which owns the barge and the tugboat, as well as three South Korean crew members.

The prosecutors also indicted the captain and the chief officer of the Hebei Spirit, accusing them of criminal negligence while on duty.

Robert Bishop is the chief executive officer of ship management company V. Ships, which manages the Hebei Spirit. He says there was nothing the crew could have done to prevent the collision.

At a news conference in Hong Kong, Bishop said the captain's actions should be applauded instead of condemned.

"What he has been accused of is far from the truth, or far from the reality of what happened, shall we say. So the consequence when all this comes to court should be that we are able to demonstrate that in actual fact, his performance was exemplary and the highest manner of good seamanship," he said.

South Korean prosecutors say the Hebei Spirit's chief officer was negligent in performing his lookout duty. They also say the captain failed to take measures to prevent the collision, such as quickly hauling up the tanker's anchor.

The Hebei Spirit's managers maintain, however, that the officers did detect the erratic behavior of the crane barge early on and alerted marine traffic authorities. And they say lifting the anchor would not have helped as it takes at least 40 minutes to do so.

Arthur Bowring is the managing director of the Hong Kong ship owners' association. He says his organization objects to South Korea's indictment of the two officers.

"We are very disappointed with any maritime authorities who indict crew members who have been involved in an accident. It's not following basic human rights, it's not following the general course of legal issues," he said.

The two indicted officers, both Indian nationals, are not in custody, but have to stay in South Korea to await their trial. If convicted, they and the mainland Chinese owner of the Hebei Spirit, who was also indicted, face up to a year in prison and a fine of $150,000.

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