Safety At Sea - Magazine - News
03 Jan 2013
Plight of Maas Trader master exposes Panama prison risk
Legal risks to seafarers following drug finds remain widespread in the Caribbean Basin. The threat has now emerged in the pivotal maritime hub of Panama.
Many of the previous cases involving officers jailed for alleged smuggling occurred in Venezuela. More recently, however, attention has shifted to the plight of Bulgarian master Lyubomirov Sobadzhiev.
The 54-year-old captain has been locked up in Panama’s notorious La Joya prison since March 2011, when 160kg of cocaine was found aboard his vessel, Maas Trader. Drugs were discovered on the containership in Cristobal after it called in Barranquilla, Colombia.
More than a year and a half later, Sobadzhiev has yet to even be officially charged by Panama’s prosecutor. But under Panama’s legal system “there are no provisions for a bail bond, or for house arrest, or detention in a less harsh environment” prior to charging, Sobadzhiev’s legal team – Panama’s Francisco Carreira-Pitti, John Cartner of Washington, DC, and New York-based Peter Wolf – told SAS.
Sobadzhiev is being detained in extremely severe conditions
as he awaits action on his case.
In a letter that was provided
to SAS, he reported that many prisoners in La Joya had been waiting five years for their
court date “and are still waiting”.
Sobadzhiev claimed he and other prisoners got only 10 minutes a day to use “light to dark brown” water to bathe and clean their clothes. La Joya does not even provide prisoners with free toilet paper. “We are living like rats,” Sobadzhiev wrote.
Allegations against Sobadzhiev mirror cases previously reported in Venezuela. When drugs are found either aboard or attached to a ship, a master can be jailed, despite clear possibilities of how contraband could be placed without a master’s involvement.
Sobadzhiev’s lawyers noted that drugs were found in Maas Trader’s forecastle, an area widely accessible to other individuals. Furthermore, upon arrival in
Cristobal, Maas Trader was diverted to a repair yard “where two people, one of whom was Colombian, came aboard in advance of Panamanian authorities. The two people have not been made available for the defence
to interview,” the legal team said.
The broader issue raised by Sobadzhiev’s case is the implied risk to other masters if drugs are found aboard their ships while in Panamanian waters. Wolf told SAS that it was in Panama’s interests to “liberate” Sobadzhiev, because the country otherwise sends the message that it “can take a captain off a ship, not even charge him, and leave him in jail just because drugs were found aboard. Justice delayed is justice denied.”
According to Cartner, Panamanian law is highly focused on combating drug trafficking. “The legislature enacted laws in which drugs, specifically, are dealt with up to the very edge of the presumption of guilt, without getting rid of the presumption
of innocence,” he said.
Panama “borrowed the concept from tort law of strict liability” for its drug laws, Cartner explained. “The system is rigged against any person if drugs are found, no matter if their innocence is proclaimed.”
According to Wolf, this strict liability model has combined with a presumption that “the master
is in command, so if drugs are found and the master is there,
the master is somehow involved”.
Wolf believes Panama’s legal system requires “almost tangible evidence to show he’s not involved, which is often very difficult. Unless you come up with a cogent theory on what exactly happened and have plausible evidence, the captain is in jeopardy.”
The application of drugs laws
to shipping is not uniform
across Caribbean Basin jurisdictions. Some countries apply
laws strictly, putting innocent seafarers at greater risk, while others grasp that shipping interests may be innocent bystanders.
SeaFreight president Roland Malins-Smith told the recent Caribbean Shipping Association conference: “Jamaican authorities are more understanding and are not
quick to assume guilt on the
part of operators and crew,”
but operators face a “lack of understanding” in Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad, and “Venezuela in particular”.
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