Indonesia May Soon Name Suspects in Ship-to-Ship Oil Transfer

Ronna Nirmala
Jakarta
2021-02-26
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Indonesia May Soon Name Suspects in Ship-to-Ship Oil Transfer The Panama-flagged MT Freya (left) and Iran-flagged MT Horse tankers are escorted by Indonesia’s coast guard to Batu Ampar Port on Batam island, Indonesia, Jan. 26, 2021.
Courtesy Indonesian Maritime Security Agency

Investigators could soon name suspects responsible for an unauthorized oil transfer from an Iran-flagged tanker to a Panama-flagged one, officials said Friday, following a cabinet minister’s visit to the island where the ships are impounded and Iranian and Chinese crews detained.

Indonesia’s coast guard seized Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC) MT Horse and MT Freya on Jan. 24 after it detected the tankers with their identification systems turned off in waters near West Kalimantan, and discovered a suspected illegal transfer underway, authorities said at the time.

“We hope we will be able to name people responsible or suspects in the near future,” Sugeng Purnomo, an aide to Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Mohammad Mahfud MD, said Friday.

Mahfud urged law enforcers to get to the bottom of the case, which he described as “a crime.”

“We’re carrying out a legal process because it’s about our territorial and legal sovereignty,” Mahfud said after a Friday meeting with officials from the country’s coast guard (Bakamla) and Transportation Ministry.

On Thursday, Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi visited Batam, the Indonesian island near Singapore where the tankers and crew are being held pending investigations.

“I urge my colleagues who handle this case to work seriously and maintain integrity,” Budi said in a statement.

Violations allegedly committed by the tankers include transferring oil ship-to-ship, concealing the tankers’ origin, turning off their automatic identification systems (AIS), and spilling oil, said Agus Purnomo, the Transportation Ministry’s director general of sea transportation.

“Spilling oil is certainly a criminal offense. Other violations of navigational rules are still being investigated,” Agus said.

He said the government was planning to revise regulations to enable greater monitoring of sea traffic to prevent illegal activities by foreign ships.

Bakamla chief Vice Adm. Aan Kurnia told reporters on Friday that the two tankers had trespassed 25 nautical miles into Indonesia’s territorial waters when the agency caught them, according to Arab News.

Earlier this month, Aan said the ships’ owners faced a fine of up to 200 million rupiah ($14,000) for violating Indonesia’s navigational laws, in the absence of legal provisions that allow heavier sanctions.

Agus did not specify on Friday what kind of punishment the tankers’ crew members and owners were facing, saying only that legal options were being considered.

Vigilant

Thirty Iranian nationals crewed the Horse, while 25 Chinese nationals crewed the Freya, officials said. The Panama-flagged tanker is owned and managed by a firm listed as the Shanghai Future Ship Management Co., according to information from MarineTraffic.com.

The Iranian embassy in Jakarta said earlier this month that Tehran was cooperating with Indonesian authorities on the matter.

“With regard to the Iranian-flagged MT Horse tanker, we have been in communication and close coordination with relevant authorities in the Republic of Indonesia,” embassy spokesman Ali Pahlevani Rad said in a statement.

China has urged Indonesia to conduct the investigation “fairly and in accordance with the law.”

Bakamla said it had become more vigilant after a Chinese survey ship went through Indonesia’s exclusive economic with its AIS turned off in January.

The Indonesian Navy has been investigating the discovery of an unmarked underwater surveillance drone, or sea glider, near South Sulawesi in December.

The device, which is capable of collecting military intelligence, likely belongs to the government of China, Malcolm Davis, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told Australia’s ABC News at the time.

Indonesia is the only nation that has designated archipelagic sea lanes.

All foreign vessels, including warships, have the right of passage through such lanes as long as they transit continuously and do not pose a security threat. Indonesia requires all ships passing through archipelagic waters to activate their automatic identification systems, or report any damage to those systems.

Earlier this year, Iran seized a South Korean oil tanker and its crew of 20, the Wall Street Journal reported. Iranian officials said the tanker flouted environmental regulations – drawing a rebuke from their South Korean counterparts, according to the report.

Tehran, for its part, has been accused in recent years of violating U.S. sanctions on its oil exports, for example, by hiding the international movements of its tankers through turning off their automatic identification systems.

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