The Indonesian coast guard said Monday it was investigating the Iranian and Chinese crews of two oil tankers after seizing them off West Kalimantan province for allegedly carrying out an illegal ship-to-ship petroleum transfer in territorial waters.
Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) took the crews of the Iran-flagged MT Horse and Panama-flagged MT Freya into custody and confiscated their tankers after they had turned off automatic identification systems on Sunday, coast guard spokesman Wisnu Pramandita said.
Thirty Iranian nationals crewed the Horse, while 25 Chinese nationals crewed the Freya, he said.
“The ships are suspected of committing four violations, including violating the right of passage in an Indonesian archipelagic sea lane and transferring oil there,” Wisnu told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, on Monday, adding that one of the tankers had spilled an undetermined amount of oil into local waters.
The Freya had traveled from Bayuquan district in China’s Liaoning province on Jan. 6 and was near Indonesia and Singapore six days ago, according to the MarineTraffic.com website. The Panama-flagged tanker is owned and managed by a firm listed as the Shanghai Future Ship Management Co., according to information from the site.
Both the Freya and the Horse can carry 2 million barrels of oil, Reuters news agency reported.
Wisnu said authorities were working on Monday to bring the two tankers to a nearby port to continue the investigation.
“The unmooring process requires a pilot or guide because the ships are big,” he said.
Indonesia is the only nation that has designated archipelagic sea lanes.
All foreign vessels, including warships, have the right of passage through such lanes as long as they transit continuously and do not pose a security threat. Indonesia requires all ships passing through archipelagic waters to activate their automatic identification systems, or report any damage to those systems.
On Jan. 14, Bakamla intercepted a Chinese survey ship that had been sailing near its waters with its identification system turned off but let the ship sail on after the crew reported that the system was broken.
On Monday, Indonesian foreign office spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told BenarNews that there had been no communication with the governments linked to the two tankers intercepted off West Kalimantan over the weekend.
According to Reuters, Iranian officials have asked their Indonesian counterparts to provide details about the ship seizure.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the action was over “a technical issue and it happens in [the] shipping field,” Reuters reported. “Our Ports Organization and the ship owner company are looking to find the cause of the issue and resolve it.”
Earlier this year, Iran seized a South Korean oil tanker and its crew of 20, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Iranian officials said the tanker flouted environmental regulations – drawing a rebuke from their South Korean counterparts, according to the report. It noted the tanker showed no environmental violations when it was inspected in 2019.
Tehran, for its part, has been accused in recent years of violating U.S. sanctions on its oil exports, for example, by hiding the international movements of its tankers through turning off their automatic identification systems.
Siswanto Rusdi, director of the National Maritime Institute (Namarin), an Indonesian think-tank, claimed that Jakarta had no right to seize the two tankers.
“An arrest, let alone confiscation, must be supported by an order from a court or institution appointed to carry it out. The issue is: Does Bakamla have it?” Rusdi told BenarNews.
“About three or four years ago, the Indonesian Navy also arrested a foreign ship but the owner challenged it in court and we lost. It will be a shame if this happens again,” he said.
Rusdi said ship-to-ship oil transfers were common and legal.
He advised the government to impose special fines on foreign ships that violate shipping lanes rather than seizing them and risking tensions with other countries.
“In Singapore, ship-to-ship transfers are a business. We don’t have that facility in our sea lanes. The government should be able to collect fees and violators should be subjected to fines,” he said.
Bakamla did not respond when BenarNews asked him about Rusdi’s comments.
Fishing crew arrested
Indonesian authorities, meanwhile, said they were questioning nine crew members of a Taiwan-flagged fishing boat at the Ranai Naval Base on the Natuna Islands after they were arrested on Friday.
“We are still in the process of examining the skipper and his crew,” navy spokesman Lt. Col. Fajar Tri Rohadi told BenarNews.
The Hai Chien Hsing 20 was seized while allegedly catching fish in the North Natuna Sea, Fajar said, adding that 12 tons of fish were found on the boat.
“From the initial inspection, the ship was not equipped with permit documents and used fishing gear that did not comply with the regulations,” Fajar said.
Two crew members including the captain Hu Shih Jung are Taiwanese, while the remaining seven are Indonesians, he said. They could face six years in prison if found guilty of illegal fishing.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.