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Pirates aboard US Navy ships

15.11.10
Text: RusNavy.com, Alexander Shagovik
Piracy-fighters also descent to criminal methods

THE AUTHOR

Alexander Shagovik, 72-year old pensioner and professional seafarer since the age of 16. In April 2001 along with other crewmen of Maaru Star he was captured in neutral waters of Pacific Ocean (1,500 miles off the US coast) by American frigate. Shagovik had spent over three years in San Diego Federal Prison, being under constant pressure of American investigative and judicial machine. On July 14, 2004 jury court found him no guilty; afterwards, he returned home to St. Petersburg. When being in prison, he started to write articles, stories, and fairytales for his grandson.

Here's his story.

1956

After graduation from Leningrad Nautical School I was posted to the oldest steamship of Baltic sea port MV Otto Schmidt as a 2nd grade greaser. I was 18, Otto Schmidt – 43. Schmidt was considered a penal steamship; her sailors served there for various faults, mostly for fantigues. I was the youngest crewmember. Sailors called our crew "Schmidt's kids". While at sea, regular sippers and hellbenders turned into eager beavers ready to work hard on the deck, in machinery, or in fireroom. All guys were real old salts and sincere friends. To me, that was brilliant life and marine school. My eagerness was noted, and I was promoted to 1st grade greaser. My work was punnily described in known song – "habitually, he pushed the fireroom door and his face was illumed by flames…"

Late 1956 – early 1957. I was 19 when attached to the crew performing the Government task to run a vessel to Chinese People's Republic. Wearied with wars and colonialists, China had no other fuel but coal, so Poland built some steamships for it. The route was as follows: Baltic Sea, Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, Suez Canal, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden (now damned by all sailors, but then there were no news of pirates), Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and the terminal point – Shanghai.

The shipmaster was tasked to sail round Taiwan 500 miles east, because of the previous incident with Soviet tanker Tuapse captured in Taiwan Strait with tragic consequences for the crew. Despite the fact we were passing by Taiwan, the US squadron (about 10 warships) surrounded us and was following one mile away all day long – approx 16 hours. Their guns were demonstratively aimed at our ship. The shipmaster and his chief mate prepared all secret documents for cremation in case of vessel capture. We crewmembers were also ready to shred our phonebooks, letters, pictures of relatives, friends and so forth. Our anxiety was natural as it was uncertain whether Americans would attack or not.

When the daylight is failing, the squadron surprisingly sailed away. Why? Perhaps, they were not authorized to capture our vessel.

Somewhere near Japan we were caught by a typhoon loop which tormented our vessel for over two days. Both lifeboats were crushed by waves; everything was washed overboard, even reels with mooring ropes. But God was merciful to us – we reached Shanghai at last.

2001

I was a 63-year old electrician on fishing vessel Maaru Star. Once upon a time, a US frigate approached us near Galapagos Islands, east Pacific. It turned out later that their 300-men crew was armed to the teeth and had even nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

The frigate's onboard electronic means suppressed our two radio sets, satellite phone, and emergency location system. If a crazy thought of scuppering our ship came to Americans' heads, nobody would ever know what happened to us. We were 10 – two Russians and eight Ukrainians – and had not a scintilla of arms onboard.


American mariners approaching a suspect vessel. armybase.us
The gun crew was in armor vests and helmets; all guns were turned to us. Then the frigate dropped a large inflatable boat with boarding party. Coming closer to us, all of them were screaming, although we could not get what they wanted. Ten marines armed with automatic rifles and pistols boarded our ship. We could read wrath on their faces. They showed neither documents nor laid any claims, only told us to sit on the deck. There were no army numbers, names, or other insignia on their uniform. Every our move or attempt to ask question were followed by angry shouts and kicks.

We were in shorts, T-shirts, and sandals because of tropic climate.

One of the captors brought white circles and started to take samples from our hands, clothes, and various parts of the vessel. Then they motioned us to sit in our cabins and keep indoors. The quarters corridor was guarded by armed people. We were not allowed to go out or talk to each other; guards followed us to latrine and dining cabin every time.

Americans brought huge boxes with tools and instruments, generator, motor pump. They worked days and nights all over the ship – opened up water and fuel tanks; pumped water and fuel from one tank to another; drilled bulkheads wherever they suspect hollows; measured compartments and checked them with the vessel drawings. Among other crew I was the only lucky guy, since the "friskers" needed an electrician all the time – to connect portable lights, to cut off shipborne machinery for safe operations, to attach in-tank pumps, to control electric elevator and so. I was sitting on the deck with my toolbox and instruments in sight of the captors' leader; he was staying at the navigation bridge, watched me and gave tasks if it was necessary.

Things proceeded in this train for five days. Searchers worked 12 hours a day and were getting tired. Their sweaty faces were a bit stupefied – obviously, because of unproductive efforts. By the way, when we were convoyed to mess-room, our state cabins were thoroughly prowled and our "guests" even did not conceal that. How do you find it from the viewpoint of jurisprudence and international laws?! Look, they could easily plant drugs or arms in my cabin. And try to argue that black is white then.

It so happed that I came in contact with one of Americans who looked as a simple toiler. He was more conscientious and efficient than others. Sometimes he asked me to bring a wrench from our tool arsenal. I willingly did whatever he asked me to, just because I was very glad to walk around my native ship and I thought that the faster they finish their prowl, the faster they let us go. Having brought another wrench to him, I asked him "What are you guys looking for?" He thought for a moment and then shocked me with sincere answer "Ask me another… Those red hats told us to search, so we have to".

Later on, being at San Diego Federal Prison and translating documents given by lawyers, I stumbled upon an order of General Naval Staff to the frigate's CO which allowed performing destructive search, so that a vessel remains afloat.

As a matter of fact, international legislation provides that a vessel search must not exceed 48 hours. The search must be authorized by the flag state, and only after that an official from a country claiming for request can board a vessel. By the way, he must present all appropriate legal documents.

But such superpower as the U.S. obeys no other laws but those enacted by itself, flying the eagle and shaking the strong fist at all the world.

They had found nothing throughout five days. Then came a US Coast Guard ship, and we were put on its open deck – in the most windy bow part. They gave us foamed beddings and thin GI blankets. We spend ten days on the steel deck under ocean winds like tramp dogs. All our sailors were running at noses, and I felt joint pain as an oldest crewmember. To let us ease nature, Americans put a big slop-pail at one of the capstans. All "slop-pail activities" were unceasingly supervised by an armed guard and watchmen on the pilot bridge.

Democracy, freedom, human rights and other stuff their presidents and officials are keen on were especially felt while sitting on the slop-pail under contemptuous gaze of American marines.

Two weeks later, one vessel-day away from San Diego, a four-motored patrol aircraft Orion appeared in the sky and parachuted several containers on the ocean surface. Americans pulled those boxes towards our ship.

Throughout two weeks of search in San Diego port, the crew of Maaru Star had not been accused of any smuggling.

We were taken on the pier one by one, told to turn back and put hands backward. On May 13 (still don't believe in omens?) I was handcuffed for the first time in my life. The game was up – I became a prisoner of US Government. Having handlocked all of us, they put us in line and let numerous camera boys make pictures; there were no Russian reporters among them.

Then they put us in cars, brought to some kind of an office, put in arm-chairs and enchained one hand to arm rests.

Afterwards a madam came in the room with a paper in hands and read the accusation in Russian. Allegedly, each of us possessed 13 tons (this fatal number again) of cocaine and in cahoots with other unknown persons was about to smuggle it into the U.S. for the purpose of further distribution. When I heard that, I felt high blood pressure and buzzing in ears. I asked for immediate audience with Russian consul, lawyer, and doctor. Having declined to give any evidence, I enraged two Russophone agents. Unfortunately, inexperience of my crewmates, ignorance of laws, and – above all – cunning of American investigative and judicial machine led them to fatal mistakes. Their evidence was fabricated and turned into our common trouble – over three years on remand under permanent pressure.

Russian consul general called to the prison from San Francisco. He asked some certain questions about genuineness of the documents, how they got on the vessel, and what our health status was.

As long as I answered in calm and measured tones, he understood that nothing was so clean. Consular promised to contact our families to bolster them up and send his assistant to meet with us.

So, I wrote an 8-page application to Russian consular general and pictured the whole story of the capture and parachute operation with containers. Mother Russia rose to defense of her sons. Totally, seven Russian consuls came to us and gave decisive and exact answers. Russian Sailors' Guild got into gear thoroughly and at once. Their representative Yury Sukhorukov covered half a planet just to defend me, a simple Russian sailor at court. His brilliant speech made an indelible impression on everybody.

Now about piracy. US government provided us with lawyers. Mostly, they were educated and experienced guys, some of them seemed even independent. The most talented of them wrote a 35-page work referring to international laws and American constitution. It appeared from that work (I myself translated from English) that only during the vessel capture there were 26 (!!!) violations made by US military and other high-handed authorities. Thus, the conclusion was obvious – US frigate conducted a hundred-percent act of piracy in neutral waters 1,500 miles away from American coast.


Boarding of US Navy search party. horseedmedia.net
For his daring viewpoint, that lawyer no longer worked with our case. They used an old and proven method and offered him a good post in the county court.

Unlucky prosecutors who failed to "smash" our never-say-die crew were also shelved and replaced with more rough ones. Nothing could save them in that deadlock situation as the crew was holding on. We repelled all promises and carrots they offered us in exchange for beating a retreat and taking the blame.

One she-prosecutor finally got nervous breakdown and was sent somewhere to the East Coast to heal and then transferred to an easier work.

At that time Russian foreign ministry was busy showering letters upon the State Department – why our people have been on trial for over three years without any outcomes etc. So, it seemed no escaping the conclusion that there was no evidence of guilt at all.

Finally, twelve jurymen with one voice said we were not guilty. That was a hundred-percent victory!

Whenever there's a report of another vessel captured by pirates in the Gulf of Aden or even in the Indian Ocean, I recall our epic. Why the mighty superpower is allowed to pirate while those bare-footed and hungry guys are not? They jeopard their lives only to have a bit of food while the orchestrators relax in their seaside villas sipping cocktails. You know, there was a time when Americans nosed into Somalia to implant their "democracy" and lifestyle. But when vengeful crowd of aboriginals dragged two naked US marines through chippings powdered on dusty road – and that video was seen worldwide – faithful Americans were horror-stricken and demanded their government to get American boys out of Somalia. And they scatted, having left the country down and out in condition of endless civil war. With that, Americans provoked total destruction of Somalia's economy, and desperate poor people have nothing to do but choose piracy as the only way to survive.

An old saying has been proved – sow the wind and you'll reap the whirlwind. Now piracy has flowered and firmed up becoming the humankind's common headache. And as long as governments of UN countries by no means can reach consensus because of different views on the problem, the piracy issue keeps coming to a deadlock. Having sad experience of official piracy, I hold to earthbound (not global) point of view – God save Russian sailors from such pirates. It is impossible to be distressed for the whole progressive mankind; we can only hope that everyone will perceive this problem right.