MV Arctic Sea
Outline of the Arctic Sea
|Owner:||Arctic Runner Shipping Inc.|
|Operator:||Great Lakes Feeder Lines|
|Port of registry:|
|Builder:||Sedef Shipyard, Istanbul, Turkey|
|Identification:||IMO number: 8912792|
|Height:||38.0 m (from keel)|
|Draught:||6.01 m (summer)|
|Installed power:||4560 HP / 3360 kW|
|Propulsion:||1 diesel engine|
|Speed:||12.50 knots (23.15 km/h; 14.38 mph)|
The MV Arctic Sea is a merchant vessel cargo ship, formerly registered in Malta that was reported as missing between late July and mid August 2009 en route from Finland to Algeria. On July 24, the Arctic Sea, manned by a Russian crew and carrying a cargo of what was declared to consist solely of timber, was allegedly boarded by hijackers off the coast of Sweden. The incident was not immediately reported, and contact with the ship was apparently lost on, or after, July 30. The Arctic Sea did not arrive at its scheduled port in Algeria, and on August 14 the ship was located near Cape Verde instead. On August 17 it was seized by the Russian Navy. An investigation into the incident is underway amidst speculation regarding the ship's actual cargo, and allegations of a cover-up by Russian authorities. The Arctic Sea was towed into harbour in the Maltese capital of Valletta on October 29, 2009.
The ship's hijacking and subsequent events remain mysterious as no credible explanation exists of its disappearance and Russia's conduct during and after capturing the ship. If confirmed to be an act of piracy, the hijacking of Arctic Sea would be the first known of its kind in Northern European waters for centuries.
Although by March 2011 all the hijackers had officially been found guilty of piracy, this has not led to – in the words of BBC correspondent Daniel Sandford – being "closer to knowing what actually happened".
The Arctic Sea is owned by a US-based company, Arctic Runner Shipping Inc. and operated by a Canada-based company, Great Lakes Feeder Lines, as of March 2010. During the hijacking the vessel was owned by a Finnish company and operated by Solchart Management.
The ship, manned by a Russian crew of 15 people, was carrying what was declared to be over $1.8 million worth of timber from Jakobstad (Finnish: Pietarsaari), Finland, to Béjaïa, Algeria. The 6,700 cubic meters of sawn timber were sold by Rets Timber, a joint venture between Stora Enso Oyj and UPM-Kymmene Oyj. The ship was between the islands of Öland and Gotland, in the territorial waters of Sweden, when it was allegedly boarded in the early hours of July 24, 2009, by a group of eight to ten English-speaking men, who approached on an inflatable boat, bearing the word 'polis' (Swedish for 'police'). According to the ship's owner, he learned from the captain that the intruders, claiming to be police officers, apprehended the crew, searched the ship and then left, leaving some crew members injured. The Swedish government said its police forces were not involved in boarding the vessel and launched an investigation.
However, reports after the discovery of the ship indicate that much of the information regarding the hijacking, including the report that the hijackers had left the ship on July 24, may have been given by crew under duress, or was deliberate misinformation by the authorities.
The actions were referred to as having nothing "in common with traditional acts of piracy or armed robbery at sea", a spokesman for the European Commission said.
The British Maritime and Coastguard Agency had the last known radio contact with the vessel as it was passing through the Strait of Dover on July 28. Nothing extraordinary was detected during the communication, though authorities believe that the crew was coerced not to raise an alarm by the hijackers. The ship continued to send Automatic Identification System signals until July 30. A press-secretary of the Swedish Police Authority confirmed that one of its investigators had a phone contact with a crew member on July 31, but refused to disclose its nature. No communication occurred after that; the ship failed to come to Béjaïa on its scheduled arrival date, August 5. Coastal tracking radar last picked up the ship's signal near Brest, France; it was later reported being observed by a patrol aircraft near the Portuguese coast. The vessel was never seen passing through the Strait of Gibraltar. A hijack alert was issued by Interpol on August 3.
On August 14 the ship was reportedly sighted off Cape Verde. The Russian ambassador to Cape Verde stated that a Russian frigate was heading to the area but that the detection had not been confirmed. Meanwhile, an unnamed military official stated that the ship had indeed been found but that the location was being kept secret from the public for security reasons, without clarifying the statement further.
The Defense Minister of Russia, Anatoliy Serdyukov, announced on August 17 that the ship had been found and seized off the Cape Verde Islands. All 15 crew members were said to be alive and well; they were transferred to the Ladnyy, a Krivak-class frigate, for questioning. At that time no additional details were given. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO mentioned to the press on August 17 that false information was deliberately supplied to the media in order to keep Russian plans secret.
After the ship's seizure the Malta Maritime Authority stated that the security committee—composed of Maltese, Finnish and Swedish authorities—were aware of the ship's location at all times, but withheld the information to protect the crew.
Seizure and investigation
On August 15 the Finnish Police issued a statement about their investigation, in cooperation with Swedish and Maltese authorities, into "aggravated extortion and alleged hijacking". The police confirmed that a ransom had been demanded, but did not reveal any details, citing possible threats to life and safety. The ship's owners claimed that they had not received any ransom demands. The security chief of Russian insurance agency Renaissance Insurance Group told Russian newspapers on August 18 that their office was telephoned on August 3, and the caller claimed to be speaking on behalf of the hijackers, demanding €1.5 million or else the ship would be sunk and crew killed.
On August 18, the Russian defense minister stated that eight hijackers had been arrested. Names of the suspects were later released (on August 25). According to the Russian defense minister, four of the arrested men held Estonian passports, two were Latvian, and the other two were Russian citizens. The Estonian Security Police reported on August 20 that six of the eight alleged hijackers were residents of Estonia, and of these, one had Estonian citizenship, two were Russian citizens, and three had undefined citizenship; additionally, several of them were known to have a prior criminal background. Once it became known that most of the alleged hijackers were residents of Estonia, the country joined the international investigation group already consisting of Finland, Sweden, and Malta.
Ships sailing the high seas are generally under the jurisdiction of the flag state (in case of the Arctic Sea, Malta). However, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, piracy is a universal jurisdiction crime so that persons arrested for piracy while in international waters are tried according to the laws of the arresting country: Russia, in this case.
According to the Russian defense minister, the hijackers approached the ship on July 24 on an inflatable boat with a purported engine problem, and were thus taken aboard by the crew. The alleged hijackers denied that any hijacking attempt took place, claiming to be environmentalists who were picked up by the ship after their boat had run out of fuel. Eleven crew members (the captain and several others remained on the ship) were returned to Moscow and held in isolation as witnesses that, quoting Alexander Bastrykin, First Deputy Prosecutor General of Russia, "need[ed] to be immediately interrogated." The Finnish National Bureau of Investigation was not supplied any information on why the crew was being held, and if they were suspected of any wrongdoing. The Russian Foreign Ministry announced that, when captured by the Russian warship, the captain initially claimed that the ship was North Korean, which was subsequently denied by Pyongyang. An attorney representing one of the alleged hijackers stated that it was the captain of the ship who prevented the men (purportedly stranded environmentalists) from disembarking the ship and who actually led her towards the western coast of Africa. Nine of the eleven detained crewmen returned home to Arkhangelsk on August 29; the remaining two ostensibly were released at a later date. In the meanwhile, the investigating authorities have placed a gag order on the crew, with a penalty of up to 7 years in prison.
An initial search of the ship found no suspicious cargo, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a statement on September 8, saying that nothing suspicious had been found on the Arctic Sea and that Maltese officials would be invited to take part in an inspection of the ship. The Times of Malta reported on September 11 that Maltese police officers and officials had been allowed to enter the ship.
On 29 October 2009 the Russian Navy finally delivered the Arctic Sea to Malta where, after an inspection by Maltese authorities, it was allowed to enter harbour and was returned to its owner. The four crewmen, including the vessel's master, who had remained with the vessel after its seizure by the Russian Navy off the Cape Verde Islands returned to Russia. Solchart Ltd. flew a new crew to Valletta where they remanned the vessel. Repairs were made during the week of 3 November and then the ship finally delivered its cargo of sawn lumber to Algeria. The arrested alleged hijackers continue to be subjected to criminal procedures in Moscow.
Media coverage and speculation
Doubts have been raised by various sources regarding the Russian authorities' account of hijacking circumstances and events, as well as the nature of the ship's cargo. Unusual aspects of the hijacking of the Arctic Sea have been pointed out by the European Union Commission and the media. This has led to speculation on the nature of the operation.
A rapporteur on piracy for the Assembly of the Western European Union and former commander of the Estonian Defence Forces Tarmo Kõuts was quoted in the Estonian newspaper Postimees as saying, "Only the presence of cruise missiles on board the ship can explain Russia's strange behavior in this whole story." He noted that the size of the naval unit sent out after MV Arctic Sea was larger than that dispatched to deal with the Somalian piracy crisis. According to a widely circulated theory, the ship was transporting anti-aircraft weapons and cruise missiles destined for Iran, and the "hijackers" were gangsters hired by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad to prevent the cargo from reaching its destination. Referring to an earlier article in Russia's Komsomolskaya Pravda, The Independent reported that an unnamed general in the Russian Navy spoke of his suspicion that Russian organized crime was illegally shipping S-300 or Kh-55 missiles to Iran. A variation of the story suggested that the Russian government itself had staged the hijacking of the ship once it learned about an unsanctioned missile delivery to the Middle East. Specifically, Mossad was reported to have been tracking the shipment, and, as BBC News reported, informed Russian authorities that the ship was transporting a "Russian air defence system for Iran." The S-300 missiles allegedly were loaded on board when the ship stopped in Kaliningrad.
Other speculation links the hijacking with Syria's aim to purchase MiG-31 jetfighters, which were actually officially ordered in 2007. The order was suspended in May 2009, reportedly either due to Israeli pressure or lack of Syrian funds. However, Russian media reported in September 2009 that Russia intends to deliver those jetfighters. This context speculation that the Arctic Sea could have been carrying up to four MiG-31 hulls for Syria.
The nature of the cargo was initially questioned by Alexander Bastrykin, leader of the Russian investigative team. He stated that he would "not rule out the possibility that [Arctic Sea] might have been carrying not only timber." Claims that the ship was involved in illegal operations will be looked into, said Bastrykin.
On September 3, 2009, it was reported that Russian journalist Mikhail Voitenko had quit his job and fled Russia allegedly after receiving threats regarding his reporting. Before his flight, Mr. Voitenko was the editor-in-chief of the Sovfrakht Marine Bulletin, which first reported the Arctic Sea missing and questioned the official story released by Russian authorities. According to investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, the threats to Voitenko may have come from an illegal arms trading ring.
Finnish authorities dismissed the possibility that the Arctic Sea was bearing a cargo of nuclear material. Jukka Laaksonen, head of the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, said radiation tests had been conducted on the ship at a port in Finland before it began its voyage. He also dismissed as "stupid rumours" reports in British and Finnish newspapers that the ship could be carrying a nuclear cargo that could explain its disappearance and the purported hijacking. According to Laaksonen the radioactivity test in Finland took place without any reason: "Some fireman for some reason thought that there might be some radioactivity involved in this shipment and that was a very stupid idea. There was no basis for that," Laaksonen was quoted by AFP.
Dmitry Rogozin was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying, "Instead of speculating about the nature of the cargo carried on the Arctic Sea and inventing different types of tales ... important lessons should be drawn from this event. ... Instead of wagging their tongues in speculation, European officials should think about the need to tackle this threat of piracy." Sergey Lavrov stated that the Arctic Sea was not secretly carrying advanced Russian missiles, "As for the alleged presence of S-300 systems onboard the dry cargo carrier Arctic Sea, this is an absolute lie"; the Russian Prosecutor General's office also denied the presence of anything but timber aboard the ship. Critical of the idea of Iran-bound missiles aboard the Arctic Sea, Russian journalist Maxim Kononenko pointed out that Russia has direct access to Iran through the Caspian Sea. However, Russia deployed two Ilyushin Il-76 transporter planes with a load capacity of at least 45 tons each to Amílcar Cabral International Airport in Cape Verde, which prompts the question whether there was more payload than the 14 crew members and 8 suspects to be taken home. Sal International Airport has a long history as a strategic refueling location for Russian and former Soviet Bloc aircraft flying to and from Latin America and the Caribbean. Speculations say the vessel may have been under Russian control already in an early stage of the incident and rerouted intentionally to thinly populated Cape Verde, where the illegal payload could be secretly unloaded and be brought back to Russia with the local government's support.
The November 2010 United States diplomatic cables leak revived the discussion, when a senior Spanish prosecutor described "the strange case of the Arctic Sea ship in mid-2009 as 'a clear example' of arms trafficking."
As of 24 December 2010, six of the nine accused have pleaded guilty. One of them, Andrei Lunev, a Russian citizen, is believed to have made a plea bargain with the Russian prosecution service. He was tried with no contest and was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment on 7 May 2010. According to the Criminal Code of Russia such an offence is punishable by 5 to 10 years imprisonment, but the maximum term is increased to 15 years if an act of piracy is performed by an organised group.
Dmitry Savins, a citizen of Latvia who earlier pleaded guilty to Russian Prosecution Service, was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment on 11 June 2010. The Russian Prosecution service named Dmitry Savins as a leader of the hijack group. In his testimony, Savins identified an Estonian businessman, diplomat and a former chief of the Estonian intelligence service Eerik-Niiles Kross — son of Jaan Kross — as a mastermind of the operation. A German and an Israeli businessmen were named as related to the crime as well, although no evidence has yet been disclosed.
On December 3, 2010, Russian court sentenced Sergei Demchenko, a Latvian businessman, to three years of imprisonment. He earlier made a plea bargain with Russian Prosecution Service so the trial was with no contest. Amongst those publicly known to be arrested in relation to the hijack, Demchenko appears to be the only person who was not a member of the boarding group. Circumstances around Demchenko's trial are rather vague. Even the fact that he had been in fact arrested was first reported by media on 1 December, and as of 3 December 2010 it remains unknown when and where Russian police detained him.
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One of the six remaining accused requested a jury trial. This move leads to some interesting legal complications. All the remaining accused would now have to be tried by jury as a group. The case was assigned to Arkhangelsk Oblast Court (Arkhangelsk is a place of residence for Arctic Sea crew) and the preliminary hearing was due to take place on 16 December 2010. As well, according to Russian law, earlier testimonies given by Savins et al. as part of a plea bargain are not admissible in jury trial.
During the preliminary hearing it was revealed that the accused who had chosen a jury trial had apparently changed his mind; therefore the outcome of the case would be decided by judges alone. On March 24, 2011, the court returned its verdict on the remaining accused and "the men - a Russian, a Latvian and an Estonian, as well as three others described as stateless - were given sentences ranging from 7 to 12 years."
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- Media related to Arctic Sea (ship, 1992) at Wikimedia Commons