LINTHICUM HEIGHTS, MARYLAND -- The International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, the nation’s preeminent professional merchant mariners’ union, is protesting the alleged inhumane treatment of six jailed American seamen arrested on weapons charges while sailing a salvage relief mission to Honduras.
The captain and crew of the Tarpon Springs, Florida-based Aqua Quest have been imprisoned for more than a month in an Honduran jail on charges that equate to unfounded accusations of international gun-running. The charges stem from a May 5 dockside raid by police who confiscated four pistols and a semi-automatic rifle.
“Mariners worldwide are concerned about the arrests, but, more importantly, they are alarmed about reports that the men are fed a few spoons of rice and beans per day; detained in fecal-infested, unsanitary conditions; relentlessly attacked by potentially disease-transmitting mosquitoes; and live in constant fear of other inmates and their captors,“ explains MM&P Chief-of-Staff Captain Klaus Luhta.
This weekend, the Aqua Quest arrests blossomed into a highly-publicized international incident when reports surfaced that the captain and crew were being treated inhumanly.
The U.S. State Department is communicating with Honduran authorities, a Pennsylvania Congressman is fighting for the men’s freedom and, on Saturday, a website soliciting donations to a defense fund went live on the internet. www.GoFundMe.com.
Aqua Quest Captain Robert Mayne describes the jail conditions, “There is continuous inmate violence and guards shoot at prisoners on a daily basis.”
AQUA QUEST SEIZED. CREW ARRESTED BEFORE RELIEF MISSION BEGAN
On the first Monday in May, the American-flagged Aqua Quest arrived in Honduras to start a project to help the impoverished Mosquito Coast community of Ahuas clear timber logs blocking its only waterway to the Caribbean Sea.
The project ended before it began.
The captain contends whilst sailing in international waters, he radioed the Honduran Navy for entry authorization.
The captain says he advised the Navy that there were weapons aboard his ship. Entry was granted.
A few hours later, when the ship arrived at the Puerto Lempira docks it was swarmed by police.
The handguns and rifle were taken. The men were handcuffed. The ship was seized.
“The official charge is illegal possession of firearms detrimental to the internal security of Honduras,” explains Luhta. He is an ocean ship master and international maritime attorney specializing in seaman’s rights and criminalization cases of mariners. “Police emphasized that the semi-automatic rifle has ‘commercial value’ – the implication is gun-running. If convicted, the men face 16 years in prison.”
Luhta adds, “Many commercial ships carry firearms for protection. In undeveloped nations there is the ever-present threat of piracy, robberies, and, in Latin America, armed confrontations with drug traffickers.”
He stresses, “A captain must be prepared to protect his passengers, crew and cargo, at all times.”
But a captain also has a duty to abide by all domestic laws regarding regulations, documentation and so on, according to Luhta.
Luhta says, “Based on the information we currently have, Honduran officials could have dealt with the weapons issue without imposing detentions.”
The Aqua Quest’s clients, officials of the town of Ahuas, called the detentions “political kidnapping.”
PATUCA RIVER PAY-OFF
Clearing Honduras’ Patuca River of cedar and mahogany logs, would enable the town of Ahuas to vitalize its fishing and lobster-diving trade. In turnm the reward to salvers is a pricey product to sell on the fine furniture manufacturing market.
The mud-buried, yet well preserved woods, are leftovers from a once-flourishing Honduran timber industry.
The logs flowed from the forest downstream to the ocean. The forest is now bare. The river no longer flows.
The salvage plan was to share one-third of the lumber sales’ profits with the town to pay for infrastructure and social programs.
The pay-off for the salvers hard work could have been substantial.
Now they face immense legal bills, fines and possible prison sentences.
MM&P ON THE RISING TIDE OF MARINER ARRESTS
MM&P’s best-known member is Captain Richard Phillips – name sake of the Oscar-nominated at-sea piracy movie drama, starring actor Tom Hanks. Phillips’ ship, the unarmed Maersk Alabama, was boarded by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean in 2009. Phillips was taken hostage. He was freed after U.S. Navy Seals’ snipers shot the pirates.
MM&P is outspoken on mariners’ rights. The Organization has previously employed its media clout to support wrongfully imprisoned pirate hunters that protect western cargo ships sailing the pirate-infested waters off Africa and Asia.
“When foreign governments want it known that they don’t want maritime protestors; when they don’t want Americans, British and other westernized mariners protecting ships along their coastlines, local authorities typically go after the captains and crews for having guns aboard their vessels,” says Luhta. “International maritime law permits onboard firearms. Once in domestic waters, it is the captain’s onus to follow the country’s laws, regulations and document filing procedures.”
MM&P president, Captain Don Marcus, has spoken-out in the name of justice for mariners around the world and even for environmental activists that have received lengthy prison sentences for interfering with Russian and Asian whaling ships. He is also boisterous on unfair labor practices and threats against the American maritime industry.
MM&P men and women officer-members are graduates of America’s seven government-operated, college-accredited maritime academies. They sail an array of American-flagged commercial vessels and U.S. Military Sealift Command ships.
U.S. Government Intervention & American Mariners’ Identities
Aqua Quest contends that authorities boarding and searching the ship circumvented proper legal procedures.
The U.S. State Department has been communicating with the Honduran government about the Americans’ imprisonment.
Republican Congressmen Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania is intervening on the crew’s behalf. One of his constituents is Devon Butler, 26, of Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
The other men are identified as Nicholas Cook, 31, of Thomaston, Georgia; Kelly Garrett, 53, of Barnesville, Georgia; Steve Matanich, 34, of Joliet, Illinois; Robert Mayne, Jr., 60, of Tarpon Springs, Florida, originally from Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Michael Mayne, Sr., 57, of Tarpon Springs, Florida, originally from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
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