Seizure of ro-ro Etel in Bengazi. When breaking the law is the only way to restore the law.

The unlawful seizure of the vessel forced Ukrainian authorities to restore justice.

On August 1 Maritime Bulletin received a bunch of documents from Libyan side of the story, revealing the true culprits, those who initiated by their theft, recent seizure of ro-ro Etel in port of Bengazi, Libya. According to those documents, the owner or owners of ro-ro Etel, ro-ro Faina and a number of other vessels of the same type, organized and carried out a scam scheme to steal a shipment of 597 cars, bought by Libyan traders, which were to be be loaded in Aquaba, Jordan, and delivered to Bengazi, Libya.

The fraudsters concocted sham papers on 597 cars, bought allegedly, by the Ukrainian company ALCO-Invest from initial seller, Panama-registered company WELLGOS PQ S.A, for $20 million. The latter was registered just 4 days before the vessel, ro-ro Faina, left Aquaba with the cars in question. By any definition, WELLGOS PQ S.A. wasn’t able to complete transaction 4 days after it was established. Bills of Lading and other required papers, including Mate’s Receipt (Maritime Bulletin received among other documents, copy of Mate’s Receipt).

Before the theft, owner of the Faina successfully and without any remarks completed 6 other shipments of the cars from Aquaba to Bengazi, so of course, Libyan traders didn’t expect any trouble. The scam shipment started as any other, Master nominated Bengazi as next port of call while transiting Suez, and problems arise only after vessel left Port Said. Master notified agent in Bengazi about engine problems, then generator problems, he was told disabled vessel was adrift, so on and so forth, until worried traders and agent found, by tracking AIS, that Faina in fact, was approaching Ilyichevsk port, Black sea, without any explanations given.

Representative of Libyan traders with lawyer at his side, immediately flew to Ukraine, and arrived in Ilyichevsk just in time to prevent first lot of several dozen of the cars leaving the port, destined for car shops. The cars would be surely lost if they reach the car shops.

Libyan traders relaxed and thought they they’d soon get their cars back, because everything was so obvious, wasn’t? The police in Ilyichevsk was vigorous and effective in investigating that not too complicated crime. But they didn’t know whom did they deal with, and were caught unprepared, when the case was taken over by General Prosecutor Office of the Ukraine in Kiev. With this takeover, the whole case was stalled. The only good thing Libyan traders were left with, was the arrest of the cars, which wasn’t lifted, and the cars didn’t leave the port during the rest of the story.

General Prosecutor Office froze the case and didn’t react to Libyan pleas and protests, apparently biding time until the traders would get the message and come to terms with the robbery. General Prosecutor Office though, didn’t dare to lift the cars arrest, maybe fearing too negative consequences in the forms of international scandal and bad publicity. It was said, that the Libyan embassy supported the traders in their quest for justice, and expressed official protest.

It didn’t help, the whole case was as good as closed. The story started on March 6, with Fiana departure from Aquaba. The actual owner of the Faina meanwhile, registered all his vessels with other offshore companies in order to hide his ownership, and was operating the vessels, as if nothing happens. Libyan traders and their lawyers collected enough info to prove, that the vessels, including ro-ro Etel, belong to one person, and were on the verge of obtaining an arrest warrant on either Etel, or Zoya ships, whose ownership was easily tracked down to the owner of the Faina. Frustrated and infuriated traders simply couldn’t resist a temptation, when on July 17 one of those vessels, Etel, arrived to Bengazi with a shipment of cars, and seized vessel (after the shipment was offloaded) without warrant, i.e. broke the law.

That daring move, like loud burst of sound causing an avalanche, caused an international scandal. It hit the headlines of all major Ukrainian national media, and was quite a story in international media, too. Ukrainian politicians were left with no other choice except to react, and to restore justice, trying to save face, or what’s left of it.

The whole story of course, is outrageous. It undermined some beliefs which keep our universe relatively safe and liveable. We believe on trust in such institutions, as law enforcement and transportation of the goods. We don’t expect the transporter whom we contracted to relocate our goods, to blatantly steal them and then find protection from victims with the law enforcement body. Both institutions in question, as applied to Ukraine, utterly failed. Ukraine shipping and law system are seriously marred by that incident, there is no doubt about that.

But there is another side of this story, too. Libyan traders, who were undoubtedly, victims, restored the justice with unjust act. They seized the Etel, thus breaking the law and the existing international legal system of settling commercial disputes, including direct crimes, such as the theft of the cargo. From one point of view, they were left with no other choice, theirs was an act of desperation, with the purpose of not compensating their losses by seizing the property of the perpetrator, but with the purpose of attracting attention to such a blazing injustice. From another point of view, unlawful seizure of the vessel and its’ crew is a crime, however just may be the cause of the captors.

Can we justify breaking of the law in some cases, or do we have to stick to the law even in hopeless situations?

Voytenko Mikhail

Aug 6 13

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