World

Relief in UK as ‘Chennai Six’ sail free

Vidya Ram London | Updated on January 09, 2018

Jailed sailors’ issue had been a thorn in ties with India

The release on Monday of six British men, alongside 29 other crew members of the MV Seaman Guard Ohio, which was intercepted by the Indian Coast Guard in 2013, was hailed by the British media, although the handling of the issue by Britain’s Foreign Office came in for some criticism.

The six Britons, who have come to be known in Britain as the ‘Chennai Six’, were arrested alongside 14 Estonians, three Ukranian and 12 Indian nationals for failing to have the right paperwork for carrying significant amounts of armaments (including automatic and semi-automatic weapons) in Indian territory.

The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court ordered their release on Monday, setting aside a lower court’s January 2016 order sentencing them to five years in prison. On Tuesday, the Chennai Six were escorted out of Puzhal prison by British Consular officials.

Since January 2016, the case had been raised repeatedly in discussions between Britain and India. The defence argued that the crew was simply involved in anti-piracy operations and looking for fuel and provisions.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the case had been a “top priority” at the Foreign Office and that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had worked tirelessly to reunite the men with their families.

However, ahead of the latest developments, the government criticism from the family of the crew as well as opposition parties. Earlier this month, Ian Lavery, the Chair of the Labour Party, wrote to the Foreign Secretary urging him to refocus efforts on the “hellish situation” of the Chennai Six, with the attention currently being paid to Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, a British-Iranian woman detained in Iran.

Over the years, the Foreign Office has faced repeated questions of whether it was doing enough on the case, with one MP accusing its members of “thumb-twiddling and warm words” rather than a concrete strategy for getting the crew home. Earlier this week, a sister of one of the jailed men told The Times that the Foreign Office had made many mistakes in the handling of the case and that Johnson was “not fit for purpose”, using the same words he had used in his promise to work on Zaghari-Radcliffe’s case, for a recent pledge on the Chennai Six too.

Indian Deputy High Commissioner in London Dinesh Patnaik noted that the handling of the case highlighted how scrupulously the rule of law was followed in India. “In India, the government cannot pressure a court to withdraw a case…you have to go through the entire process of law and the government listens to what the court says,” he said.

He added that the handling of the case should offer reassurances to those in Britain voicing concerns about Jagtar Singh Johal, a British national currently in custody in Punjab, over allegations that he was involved in targeted killings in the State. The case was within the court system and it was for it to decide, he said. “If the UK arrests an Indian citizen, we are not going to tell the UK government whether he should be set free or not…we leave it to the courts.”

Published on November 28, 2017

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