Indonesia, Cambodia, and a Bahamas-flagged oil tanker are embroiled in an escalating quarrel over nearly 300,000 barrels of crude oil that Phnom Penh alleges was stolen by the ship’s crew.
Last week, an Indonesian court sentenced the captain of the M.T. Strovolos to 15 days in prison for anchoring his ship in local waters without permission. A few days later, Jakarta detained the tanker’s 19 other crew members for questioning on Batam Island, in response to an Interpol red notice issued by Cambodia.
Harry Goldenhardt, spokesman for the Riau Islands provincial police, said a team from the National Central Bureau-Interpol had been questioning the tanker’s crew members since Saturday.
“It’s based on the red notice by the Cambodian government and a letter sent by the Phnom Penh Court requesting assistance in the arrest and return of the ship and its crew,” Harry told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
On Monday, the Singapore-based company that owns the ship said Cambodia’s claim that the oil cargo was transported illegally was “without foundation,” and urged Indonesia to reject Phnom Penh’s request for assistance.
On Sept. 22, when the Batam District Court convicted Sazzedeen S.M., the Bangladeshi captain of the Strovolos, it also fined him 100 million rupiah (U.S. $7,000), according to a court document of the ruling obtained by BenarNews.
“Defendant Sazzedeen S.M has been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of committing a criminal act,” the document said, adding that Sazzedeen must serve an additional month in prison if he failed to pay the fine.
“The defendant failed to comply with navigational procedures in Indonesian territorial waters and potentially endangered traffic in the waters,” the court said.
The Indonesian Navy said that the 600-foot Strovolos was illegally anchored off Sumatra, with its identification system turned off, when authorities seized it on July 27, three days after Phnom Penh issued the red notice about the alleged cargo theft.
An Indonesian warship, the KRI John Lie-358, intercepted the tanker near the Anambas Islands, a chain located in Riau Islands province, after the Strovolos had sailed into Indonesian waters in the South China Sea without permission, the navy added.
‘Cambodia has not provided any proof’
Meanwhile, Cambodia has requested that the oil be returned, but the Indonesian navy said it would be up to the judiciary to decide what to do with the cargo.
“The legal process is the authority of the prosecutor’s office and the court,” said the spokesman for the Naval Fleet Command I, Lt. Col. Laode Muhammad.
Batam chief prosecutor Polin Octavianus Sitanggang could not be reached for comment.
World Tankers, which owns the Strovolos, said the Cambodian government had contracted the company that chartered the ship, KrisEnergy Group.
“The vessel’s owners understood that the chartering company was contracted by the Government of Cambodia as part of a commercial oil development projection and gave it the right to sell the oil subject to payment of royalties,” World Tankers said in a statement issued Monday.
“The Government of Cambodia has not provided any proof to the owners to support its claim that it owns the cargo on board the vessel.”
World Tankers further said that the Strovolos crew are “the innocent victims of wrongful conduct by the Government of Cambodia in violation of their human rights.”
The tanker, built in 1999, was chartered to oil exploration firm KrisEnergy (Apsara) Co. Ltd, which started producing oil from Cambodia’s first oil field in December 2020.
During the charter, the KrisEnergy Group ran into financial troubles and filed for liquidation in June, but was unable to pay the tanker’s crew.
The owners and the crew wanted the cargo to be offloaded by mutual agreement, and in the meantime, moved the vessel offshore of Batam, pending a crew change.
“There has never been any intention or suggestion that anything would be done with the oil on board other than to offload it as soon as its ownership is proved, and agreement is reached about payment to the owners of the money which they are owed,” World Tankers said.
The owners are concerned that there would not be a fair trial in Cambodia and that official statements saying the crew stole the cargo were “inappropriate and contrary to the basic principle of justice,” the company said.
‘Indonesia does not need to interfere’
Siswanto Rusdi, an observer at the National Maritime Institute (Namarin), an independent think-tank, said Indonesian authorities should release the tanker’s crew.
“The red notice comes from Cambodia, which means you have to return [the cargo] to Cambodia,” he told BenarNews.
“Even if there is a dispute behind it, Indonesia does not need to interfere.”
Indonesia has nothing to do with the tanker once the legal case against the violation of navigational rules has been decided, Siswanto said.
“Now, what is the basis for the detention? What business do we have? If not careful, Indonesia could be subjected to a lawsuit,” he said.
“The current international law does not favor seafarers. In any dispute, no matter how small, the crew are the ones subjected to arrest, when in fact, they are only part of the process of moving goods, but don’t necessarily know the agreement behind it,” Siswanto said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.