In a heart-wrenching development, five Indian sailors who have been stranded in Iran for 18 months have appealed for help to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar, to return home.
Harbouring dreams of a better future for themselves, the five youngsters – all holding valid qualifications and documents – had flown to Iran to join merchant navy ships in 2019, through an Indian agent.
They are: Aniket S. Yenpure, 29 and Mandar M. Worlikar, 26, (both Mumbai), Pranav A. Tiwari, 21, (Patna), Naveen M. Singh (New Delhi), and Thamizh R. Selvan, 31, (Chennai).
However, while sailing on the high seas off Oman in February 2020, the five were unknowingly trapped in a treacherous maritime narcotics smuggling racket, leading to their arrest and imprisonment. Even after being acquitted in the case, they are still grounded in a foreign land for 18 months.
In India, their frantic family members have written several letters to the Prime Minister, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the Iranian authorities there and in India, the Indian diplomats stationed in Iran for intervention, but to no avail.
“As events unfolded after February 2020, little did these boys realize that not only their dreams would be shattered, but they would also be imprisoned and kept away from their families in India,” rued Aniket’s distraught father in Mumbai, Sham Yenpure.
From mid-2019, all the excited youngsters – on their maiden sea-jobs – were doing their duties enthusiastically till one ‘black voyage’ in February 2020 on a ship, ‘MV Artin10’, owned by an Iranian, Razaee Mukkadam which literally changed the course of their lives.
The ship’s master, Capt. M. Rasool Gharebi took them on board for a series of long voyages lasting around 6-7 weeks, sailing from Iran to Kuwait, Muscat (Oman) and other ports, delivering different types of cargo.
“On the afternoon of February 20, 2020, Capt. Gharebi suddenly ordered the ship to stop in the high seas and drop anchor, around 140 kms from Muscat. A few hours later, another vessel came and unloaded what appeared to be small ‘rice-bags’ on our ship,” Aniket Yenpure said from an unknown location around Chabahar.
Since this mid-sea cargo transfer was illegal as per international maritime laws, Worlikar and his co-crew quietly recorded it on their mobile phones – as evidence for the Customs and Iran Police authorities at the next port.
Unexpectedly, the very next morning (February 21, 2020), an Iran Navy ship intercepted and arrested them all on the high seas and transferred them to the naval ship.
During interrogation, Capt. Gharebi admitted that “the Indian crewmen were innocent and had no knowledge of the illicit cargo transfer operation” which he master-minded in the high seas.
At one point, the Captain attempted suicide by stabbing himself – but since the navy ship was near the small Konarak Port, he was rushed to hospital and survived.
The five Indians were also offloaded at the same port town, arrested by the local Counter-Narcotics Department, and shunted to custody by a Konarak Court. Even Capt. Gharebi and later the shipowner Mukkadam were nabbed in the same case.
“We felt doomed and helpless…It was only at this stage we learnt that the ‘rice-bags’ loaded on our ship in the high seas actually was 1.50 tonnes of banned narcotics being smuggled through the sea,” said Aniket, as they prepared to spend the next 382 days in jail – without committing any crime.
Their case was subsequently transferred from Konarak Court to the Chabahar Court which found them innocent on March 8, 2021 and ordered their immediate release.
When they went to collect their passports and other documents, the CounterNarcotics Department in Konarak re-arrested them and produced them before the Konarak Court.
The Konarak Court also ordered their forthwith release as per the Chabahar Court ruling, but withheld their travel and other documents – effectively leaving the five youngsters high and dry there since March 10, 2021.
“In April, we were informed that the Konarak Court had raised certain objections to the Chabahar Court verdict and the matter was transferred to the Supreme Court of Iran. After two months, in end-June 2021, the Iran apex court struck down the Chabahar Court judgment. We have no clue of what lies ahead,” Aniket Yenpure said in a shaken voice.
Now, the Mumbai boys’ families plan to meet Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Tourism Minister Aditya Thackeray seeking their good offices with the Centre to help release the two ‘Marathi’ lads, said Sham Yenpure.