Sunday, August 04, 2013

Tamil Nadu fishermen in Iran? Complex maritime geopolitics!

A couple of days ago, I read this headline in The Hindu:
‘Ensure release of TN fishermen from Iran jail’
I am fairly familiar with the South Asian and Middle Eastern geography and, thus, was intrigued--after all, it is a long way from Tamil Nadu to Iran.

Consider the following map:


Tamil Nadu's coastline is way in the south, across from Sri Lanka.  If it were a news item about Tamil Nadu fishermen in Sri Lankan jail, I would have thought it is merely the latest of a long-running maritime issue between these two countries.  But, Iran?

There had to be more, and there was:
 The detained fishermen were the sole breadwinners of their families, and were engaged as contract labourers in fishing boats by a private company based in Saudi Arabia.
In the course of their work, they ventured into Iranian waters and were arrested. Without access to legal aid, they were tried and convicted by an Iranian court to undergo six months imprisonment and pay a fine of $ 5,750 each, she said.
“The fishermen continued to languish in jail, even after serving the term, for want of resources to pay the fine. They had not even been able to contact the Indian Embassy,” Ms.Jayalalithaa said.
The Embassy, she said, did not make effort either to establish contact with them or provide legal assistance.
It also did not put any pressure on the employer company to secure their release by settling the fine amount.

Of course, in many of these international incidents, there could be a lot more than what meets the eye.  But, it sounded rather odd that the Indian government and its embassy did not act in this context.  

I held back the first sentence in that report to highlight how bizarre this is--the sixteen fishermen were arrested back in December.  December!  More than seven months ago.  Which means that they have served out their sentence, but can't get out of the prison because they can't pay up?

I have been watching out for any update since then.  Nothing about the Indian government though.  But, there was this:
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa on Tuesday ordered of Rs 1 lakh financial assistance to each of the families of the 16 fishermen from the State who have been imprisoned in Iran. Announcing the aid, Jayalalithaa pointed out that she had urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take steps to help secure the release of the fishermen by paying the fine levied on them by the Iranian court.
One lakh rupees is about $1,700.  The fine amount is $5,750.  The diplomatic inaction is all the more intriguing.
Meanwhile, in Nagercoil, family members of the jailed fishermen hailed Jayalalithaa’s gesture.
“After hearing about my brother’s arrest our mother fell ill and now she is bedridden. The CM’s assistance will be a great relief for our family,” said Sahaya Rani, sister of jailed fishermen Jeya Seelan from Colachel.
It is not beyond anybody's imagination as to why Iran wouldn't have done anything otherwise.  In December, Iran was preparing for the elections that were held later in June.  Any out-of-the-ordinary foreign presence would have been suspicious.  More so when this is a story of Tamil fishermen under contract with a Saudi company.  Imagine Iranian navy personnel questioning the occupants of a ship flying with Saudi papers, when Iran and the Saudis have a history of bad blood between them.  And the people "spin" a story of how they are fishermen from Tamil Nadu; wouldn't you also throw them in jail under the suspicious circumstances?

If it were a bunch of IT professionals, then would the Indian government have let nearly eight months go by?  It is one heck of a crazy world in which we live!

1 comment:

Ramesh said...

Yes, I had read this story in the papers too and unfortunately this is not uncommon at all. Indians, being a migratory race, land up in all sorts of places. Such cases are there in every country - when I lived in China, the local consular officials had 75% of their time devoted to helping Indians who landed up in jail for all sorts of reasons- drugs, overstaying visas, duped by intermediaries on migration, etc etc. The Indian embassies do a lot actually, but there just too many Indians in trouble everywhere.

Surprisingly I have found Indian embassies very helpful - my experience across multiple countries, although the general perception is that they are useless.

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