Shipowners pay for free vessels held by the Indonesian Navy near Singapore sources

A bird’s eye view of ships off the coast of Singapore July 9, 2017. REUTERS / Jorge Silva / File Photo

  • The Indonesian navy is detaining ships waiting near the port of Singapore
  • Shipowner sources say it costs $ 300,000 to get them released
  • The Navy denies having received or requested money
  • Arrests come as pandemic delays cause congestion of the port

SINGAPORE, Nov. 14 (Reuters) – More than a dozen shipowners have paid about $ 300,000 apiece to release ships detained by the Indonesian navy, which said they were illegally anchored in Indonesian waters near Singapore, according to sources with direct knowledge of the case .

The dozen sources include shipowners, crew and maritime security sources, all involved in the detentions and payments, which they say were either made in cash to naval officers or via bank transfer to intermediaries who told them they represented the Indonesian navy.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm that payments were made to naval officers or determine who the final recipients of the payments were.

The detentions and payments were first reported by Lloyd’s List Intelligence, an industry website.

Rear Admiral Arsyad Abdullah, the Indonesian naval commander for the region, said in a written response to Reuters’ question that no payments were made to the navy, nor that it used any intermediaries in lawsuits.

“It is not true that the Indonesian navy received or asked for payment to release the ships,” Abdullah said.

He said there had been an increasing number of detentions of ships in the past three months to anchor without permission in Indonesian waters, deviate from the sailing route or stop midway for an unreasonably long time. All detentions were in accordance with Indonesian law, Abdullah said.

The Strait of Singapore, one of the busiest waterways in the world, is filled with ships waiting days or weeks to dock in Singapore, a regional ship hub where the COVID-19 pandemic has led to long delays.

Singapore’s waterways are among the busiest in the world

Ships have been anchored in waters east of the strait for years while waiting in port, believing they are in international waters and therefore not responsible for any port charges, said two maritime analysts and two shipowners.

The Indonesian navy says this area lies within its territorial waters and it intends to crack down harder on vessels anchoring there without a license.

A spokesman for the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, a government body, declined to comment.

TRÆMME Imprisonment

About 30 ships, including tankers, bulk carriers and a pipeline layer, have been detained by the Indonesian navy for the past three months, and the majority have since been released after making payments of $ 250,000 to $ 300,000, according to two shipowners and two maritime security sources involved.

Making these payments is cheaper than potentially losing revenue from ships carrying valuable cargo, such as oil or grain, if they are tied up for months while a case is being processed by an Indonesian court, two shipowners said.

Two crew members on detained ships said armed navy sailors approached their ships on warships, boarded them and escorted the ships to naval bases at Batam or Bintan, Indonesian islands south of Singapore, across the strait.

The masters and often crew members were detained in cramped, suffocating premises, sometimes for weeks, until shipowners organized cash to be delivered or a bank transfer was made to an intermediary from the fleet, two detained crew members said.

Abdullah, the Indonesian naval officer, said ship crew members were not detained.

“During the legal process, the entire crew of the ships were on board their ships, except for the interrogation at the naval base. After the interrogation, they were sent back to the ships,” he said.

Path of vessels detained near Singapore and then released by Indonesian authorities

Stephen Askins, a London-based maritime lawyer who has advised owners whose vessels have been detained in Indonesia, said the fleet was entitled to protect its waters, but if a ship was detained, some form of prosecution should follow.

“In a situation where the Indonesian navy appears to be detaining ships with the intention of extorting money, it is difficult to see how such a detention could be legal,” Askins told Reuters in an email. He declined to provide details about his clients.

Navy Lieutenant Colonel La Ode Muhamad Holib, a spokesman for the Indonesian Navy, told Reuters in a written response to questions that some vessels detained in the past three months had been released without charge due to insufficient evidence.

Five ship captains were prosecuted and two others had received short prison sentences and fines of 100 million rupiah ($ 7,000) and 25 million rupiah, respectively, Holib said, refusing to elaborate on the specific cases further.

($ 1 = 14,240 rupiah)

Reporting by Joe Brock in Singapore; further reporting by David Lewis in Nairobi; graphics by Gavin Maguire; Editing Raju Gopalakrishnan

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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