The West African republic of São Tomé e Príncipe has wrongfully confiscated two ships chartered by the Swedish oil company Stena Oil, including the cargo. The captains have been sentenced to 3 years imprisonment and charged with "smuggling" in a show trial, claim Stena Oil.
In addition a fine of 5 million EUR has been imposed, and the vessels and cargo have been confiscated by the state of São Tomé.
It is Stena Oil's clear and firm position that the allegations are entirely unfounded. Neither the ship owners nor Stena Oil have been given the opportunity by any court to clear the false allegations against them. The São Tomé court has refused to consider evidence that would clearly prove the innocence of all the accused parties, including the captains who have now been imprisoned. After nearly four months, the situation remains unresolved and has thus far cost Stena Oil and the owners of the ships more than 3 million USD.
The situation started on March 15th 2013 when two ships chartered by Stena Oil were to transfer some equipment and cargo off the coast of São Tomé between themselves. Due to the conditions at sea, the captains made the decision to seek shelter closer to shore, within São Tomé territorial waters. It was simply a matter of safety for the vessels, crew and environment. The coast guard of São Tomé appeared before any transfer had been commenced and records of the radio traffic show that they did not disapprove of the vessels' presence there. Yet both vessels were later boarded and made to move to port, where the captains where forcefully taken ashore for questioning. Vessel documents and crew passports were seized.
Despite substantial effort on the part of Stena Oil, the São Tomé authorities refused to explain why they had detained the ships, or on what charges. Five days later, the captains were accused of illegal entry into territorial waters and smuggling. These accusations are unfounded and absurd, as the intended transfer was from one ship chartered by Stena Oil to another. After a perfunctory trial, in which the accused captains were not allowed to present evidence of their innocence, the judgment was passed two weeks later.
Stena Oil maintain that neither of the vessels nor their owners and crew have been involved in any of the illegal actions alleged by São Tomé, including smuggling. In a region where international shipping is suffering daily from the threat of piracy, São Tomé has now introduced a new threat: de facto piracy by a sovereign state in the form of illegal confiscation of ships and cargo. Therefore, we are sharing this information with the international community as a warning for those who are doing business in or near the republic of São Tomé e Príncipe.