The oil thief Norwegian Vessel with her 26 crew members who were arrested, tried and detained in Nigeria’s naval dock since August 2022 have been released.
They were released on May 27, 2023 after they perfected and fulfilled the conditions of the plea bargain entered into with Nigerian government.
The large crude oil carrier, MT Heroic Idun, and her crew members, were handed over to the owners, Idun Maritime Limited.
The Naval Commanding Officer, Forward Operating Base, Bonny, Navy Captain Mohammed Adamu, who presided over the handing over, said the vessel was prosecuted under the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences Act, 2019.
The arrest and prosecution, he said, further demonstrated the Nigerian Navy’s practical commitment to end oil theft in the country.
Adamu said the Navy would continue to work in synergy with other Maritime Law Enforcement Agencies, natives of the Gulf of Guinea states and strategic partners of Nigeria to ensure that it derives the maximum benefit from its natural resources in her vast maritime area.
“Accordingly, the owners of the vessel apologized to the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) on the LLOYDS List on 12 May 2023 and same apology was published in The Punch Newspaper (Page 22) on 18 May 2023.
“The vessel regretted the false pirate attack alarm she raised on 7 August 2022 which was in clear defiance of the State being that she disobeyed the orders of Nigerian Navy Ship GONGOLA after an attempt to load crude oil without appropriate approvals from NNPCL and the necessary security clearance.
“The subsequent transfer of the ship from Equatorial Guinea after she had escaped Nigerian waters and her prosecution demonstrated the Navy’s commitment to ensure that only valid and authorized vessels were allowed to carry out export of crude oil or gas at the various oil terminals,’’ he said.
He explained that MT HEROIC IDUN has fulfilled all the conditions of the plea bargain to the satisfaction of the Federal High Court and been released today Saturday 27 May 2023 to its owners, Idun Maritime Limited with the consent of the court and approval of the FGN.”
Navy Captain Adamu said, “Consequent upon this development, maritime stakeholders, key players and seafarers operating within Nigerian waters are enjoined and warned to carefully conduct their operations and maritime-related activities within extant regulations and with due observance of the law.”
“The Nigerian Navy will not fail to bring to book those whose operation infringes on the provisions of the SPOMO Act and all maritime laws and conventions acceded to by the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
The Captain of the convicted vessel, Mr Tanuj Mehta, stated that they were professionally treated by the Nigerian Navy, saying as a crew they were happy to return to their country.
“We were treated professionally by the Nigerian Navy and we are thankful to the Nigerian Navy and to the people of Nigeria for treating us well and extremely professionally.
“And yes, we are aware of the arrangement between the Navy and the vessel owners as well as the plea bargain agreement. And we are very happy and relieved to go back to our country.’’
The crude oil tanker with 26 foreign crew member on board resisted arrests by the Nigerian Navy Ship Gongola, near the Apu oilfield offshore Nigeria and were eventually arrested in Equatorial Guinea in August 2022.
The crude carrier and the foreigners were then brought back to Nigeria for prosecution in November 2022 on three count charges.
The convicted vessel, MT HEROIC IDUN and its owners were to pay conviction fines and restitution to the federal government and make an apology to the Federal Republic of Nigeria in print and electronic media as well as Llyod’s List.
The vessel and the crew also pleaded to pay N5 million as penalty for the charge and $15 million as restitution to Nigeria.
The government agreed not to further criminally prosecute and or investigate the vessel, her owners, charterers or her crew in the matter of her crime against the State.
All these being the conditions of the plea bargain without which the vessel and its crew would not be released.
Commodore A. O Ayo-Vaughan, Director of Information of Nigeria Navy, on May 9, 2023 issued a statement to douse rumours surrounding saga to clear sensational stories that the vessel had not been released despite court order.
He explained that the owners of the vessel made the plea agreement after due consultations in line with Section 270 (5) (a) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015.
Upon the acceptance of the plea bargain, both parties agreed to the fulfilment of the conditions before any release will be made.
Accordingly, after the conviction and sentencing by the Court in line with the agreed terms, MT HEROIC IDUN and its owners are to pay fines to the Federal Government and make an apology to Nigeria in print and electronic media as well as Llyod’s list.
The MT HEROIC IDUN with IMO number 9858058 is registered in Marshall Island and has an overall length of 336-metres, 60 metres breadth (nearly the size of 3 football fields) and a carrying capacity of 3 million barrels.
The vessel’s Captain having duly responded to Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) GONGOLA later failed to comply with the Navy ship’s order to proceed to Bonny Anchorage to await her papers from the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) but rather altered her course southward and proceeded at top speed towards the Nigeria/Sao Tome Joint Development Zone.
The vessel reported her encounter with NNS GONGOLA to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) as a pirate attack, but this was later refuted by IMB because it was not.
Fortunately, MT HEROIC IDUN was tracked by the Nigerian Navy’s state of the art Maritime Domain Awareness system and the ship was eventually arrested by the Equatorial Guinean authorities based a formal request by the Nigerian Navy under the Yaoundé code of conduct.
The vessel was afterwards transferred back to Nigeria on 12 November 2022.
For the brazen act of defiance to constituted authority as exhibited by MT HEROIC IDUN as well as the false pirate attack alarm she raised including the attempt to load crude oil without relevant approval, igeria charged the vessel and the crew to court at the Federal High Court on 10 January 2023 in Port Harcourt.
The Navy in the statement criticised what is has described as “mischief makers and uninformed hypocritical sympathisers that the vessel’s presence in NME on 7 August 2022 was not just suspicious but with apparent intent to commit a grave crime against the nation’’.
The Navy explained that it was pertinent and instructive to note that MT HEROIC IDUN and her 26 foreign crew pleaded guilty and elected voluntarily to enter into a plea bargain agreement with the Federal Republic of Nigeria as well as make restitution to the Federal Government.
The Navy therefore explained the release of MT HEROIC IDUN and the crew members is subject to the fulfilment of all aforementioned conditions of the plea bargain to the satisfaction of the Federal High Court.
I frowned at publications and media reports of the release of the vessel and explained that these “are thus false, mischievous and misleading’’.
`The Nigerian Navy assured Nigerians that in accordance with its statutory responsibilities and drawing strength from the strategic directives of the Chief of the Naval Staff the Service will sustain a posture of zero tolerance to crude oil theft and other criminal activities in Nigeria Maritime
“The Navy shall continue to work in synergy with other maritime stakeholders, navies of the Gulf of Guinea states and strategic partners of Nigeria to ensure that Nigeria derives maximum benefit from its natural resources in the maritime area.
“No form of campaign of calumny or malicious online publications will distract the Navy from her unwavering commitment to the dutiful fulfilment of her constitutional mandate.,’’ Ayo-Vaughan said.
Nigeria’s Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Awwal Gambo, on May 8, 2023 also spoke on the issue of the a rogue tanker.
He confirmed that the 26 crew members among who were citizens of India, Sri-Lanka, Pakistan and Poland.
Vice Admiral Gambo said: “It is to be noted that the vessel and crew will not be released until the penalty and restitution are paid as well as public apologies made in the print and electronic media in Nigeria and Llyod’s list.