Chennai: All 35 crew members and guards of US-based anti-piracy ship M V Seaman Guard Ohio were released from prisons in Tamil Nadu where they had been lodged for the past few years.
Six British crew members, fourteen Estonians and three Ukrainians were released from the Puzhal prison on the outskirts of Chennai and diplomats from their respective countries received them.
They were released a day after the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court acquitted all 35 crew members overturning a trail court order last year. The crew were on the MV Seaman Guard Ohio, operated by a US company to guide ships through the Indian Ocean and Red Sea shipping lanes.
The six Britons, all former soldiers, were serving as guards on the vessel when the Indian coast guard off Tuticorin intercepted it in October 2013.
Semi-automatic weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition were found, and the crew was charged with not having proper paperwork to carry weapons in Indian waters. However, the owners of the ship denied the charges saying all firearms were legally purchased.
It was not immediately known, however, when the foreigners could leave India, even though a high court on Monday overturned the five-year prison sentences passed on them in January 2016. Authorities can still appeal against the latest ruling in the four-year legal rollercoaster.
US maritime security firm AdvanFort, which owns the Seaman Guard Ohio, repeatedly denied the charges, saying all firearms on board were legally purchased and properly documented. The crew's case was that the vessel only strayed into Indian waters because they became stranded after running out of fuel.
The 35, except the Ukrainian captain and one Briton, were released on bail in 2014 on condition that they stayed in Chennai. A court quashed the charges against the crew in July 2014. But the country's Supreme Court overturned that ruling the following year, setting up the trial in 2016 at which they were all jailed.
The families of the crew had lobbied hard for a new hearing, and the Indian government faced pressure from Britain and Estonia over the case. The Estonian government summoned the Indian ambassador last week to protest over legal delays.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson welcomed the release of the British nationals and said his ministry “has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to reunite these men with their families. The importance the UK government places on their case cannot be understated.”
R Arumuga Ram, one of the lawyers for the crew, said that the Indian crew members were welcomed by their families outside the prison in the southern city of Tirunelveli. Harjith Singh, told Ram that “it was a very painful experience inside the prison.”