A court in Nigeria’s oil hub city Port Harcourt has arraigned 16 foreign crew from an oil tanker, with officials accusing them of suspected maritime offenses involving attempts to illegally export crude.
The Heroic Idun tanker case comes as Nigeria’s government moves to crack down on massive theft from pipelines and oilfields which costs the country billions of dollars.
Nigerian officials accuse the tanker of attempting to illegally load crude at the Akpo offshore oilfield facility in August before fleeing from the Nigerian navy, which came to intercept the vessel.
Nigeria’s navy said the tanker was held in Equatorial Guinea since leaving Nigerian waters, but the Equatorial Guinea government earlier this month authorized its return to Nigeria.
The crew pleaded not guilty on Monday to the charges of contravening the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences Act 2019.
Justice Turaki Muhammed ordered them remanded in a Nigerian Navy vessel to allow 10 remaining suspects to be brought to court on Tuesday.
Crew members include Indian nationals, Sri Lankans and Filipinos.
The Nigerian navy accused the crew of falsely claiming they were under attack from pirates in order to flee Nigerian waters. Crew said they misunderstood the ship was a navy vessel.
Speaking to reporters after the court appearance, the tanker’s captain Tanuj Mehta said they had simply followed instructions from their managers.
“We came into Nigeria on August 8. We have some misunderstanding relating to our documents which were supposed to be filed by the ship’s agent,” he said.
“In the night we had an incident with a vessel which we didn’t know at the time as the Nigerian Navy.”
Officials say Nigeria’s oil production has fallen to historic lows – below one million barrels per day – partly due to the unprecedented theft of its crude production from pipelines and fields in the Niger Delta region.
The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation said last month its cooperation with security forces was reducing theft and will bring production consistently back up.
Critics say oil theft in Nigeria, one of Africa’s largest petroleum producers, is a much wider problem of corruption involving elements of the security forces and local political leaders.
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