The Nigerian Navy issued a statement confirming that a plea deal has been struck for the release of the crew of the tanker Heroic Idun while also denying media reports that the crew has been released. The Navy is emphasizing that there are pre-conditions on the release. This came out as it was also reported that the Marshall Islands as the flag state for the tanker has again sought the assistance of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to resolve the dispute.
Giving an update on the trial at the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt, naval spokesman Commodore Ayo Vaughan said, “The plea bargain was in the interest of justice, the public, and for public policy interest.” He, however, noted that the release of the ship is subject to the fulfillment of all conditions of the plea bargain to the satisfaction of the court. The statement dated May 3 says, “The online reports and stories of the release of the vessel are thus false, mischievous, and misleading.”
The Nigeria Navy reiterated its claims that the Heroic Idun (300,000 dwt) had entered Nigeria on August 7, 2022, and headed for the Akpo Field without any form of authorization or clearance, an accusation firmly denied by the vessel’s owner Ray Car Carriers and BP which had the vessel under charter. The Nigerian Navy contends the captain of the tanker initially responded to the Nigerian Navy ship Gongola but later failed to respond to an order to proceed to the Bonny Anchorage to await paperwork. Days later, the vessel was detained in neighboring Equatorial Guinea and ordered to return to Nigeria on November 12, 2022, to stand trial. The plea deal was announced on April 28 in the court.
The International Tribunal reports that the Marshall Islands and Equatorial Guinea had reached an earlier agreement on April 18 after discussions with their representatives in Hamburg, Germany. Both sides agreed to submit the dispute to a special chamber of the Tribunal made up of the president and four judges. The order for the special chamber hearing was entered on April 27, the day before the court hearing in Nigeria, and was announced by the tribunal on May 2.
It was the second time the Marshall Islands sought the aid of the tribunal, which was established by the United Nations as an independent judicial body to adjudicate disputes arising from the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea adopted in December 1982. The tribunal is rarely invoked, with the previous case having been in 2020 between Switzerland and Nigeria over the detention of the tanker San Padre Pio and before that to settle disputes concerning the delimitation of maritime boundaries.
In November 2022, the tribunal agree to hear a case calling for the immediate release of the vessel. The case was later withdrawn after the vessel was transferred to Nigeria. The new special chamber will be formed to hear the dispute concerning the Heroic Idun and her crew. The Marshall Islands previously argued that Equatorial Guinea had illegally detained the vessel and its crew.
Commodore Ayo-Vaughan, Director of Information for the Nigerian Navy, laid out the conditions that they believe must be met before the vessel and crew are released. He said after acceptance of the plea bargain and after the conviction and sentencing by the court, the Heroic Idun and its owners are to pay fines to the Federal Government. In addition, they need to make an apology to the Nigerian Government in print and electronic media, including Lloyd’s List.
In turn for accepting the plea bargain, Nigeria agreed not to further criminally prosecute and/or investigate the vessel, her owners, charters, or her crew in the matter of her crime against the state.
No timing was announced when the release might be completed. At the same time, the Nigerian Navy said it will continue to “sustain a posture of zero tolerance to crude oil theft and other criminal activities.”