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17 Sep, 2009 02:23

“Arctic Sea” comes to Canaries as investigation wrapped up

The notorious cargo-ship “Arctic Sea” that caught the world's attention this summer after being hijacked in the Baltic Sea and going missing for three weeks is expected to dock at La Porta de Palmas in the Canaries.

Authorities at La Porta de Palmas are preparing for the ship’s arrival in short order, but they still cannot give permission for the ship to pull into port.

They are still waiting for the “Arctic Sea” to get in touch with the port management and to get authorization. It will be issued by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And up until now, the ship has not been in touch with the port authorities.

Russian investigators have completed their work onboard the ship. The probe was done together with Maltese police and navy officers, since the vessel was sailing under a Maltese flag.

“At this point the Investigative Committee has finished its work on board the ‘Arctic Sea,’” said Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the prosecution’s Investigative Committee.

“This work was conducted together with the Maltese police and maritime authorities. On September 17 the freighter will be handed to its owner [the Malta-based company Arctic Sea Ltd.] or the Maltese government.”

And though the Russian prosecutor may be satisfied with the investigation, many others are not. Lawyers representing the alleged pirates say the Russian government has violated international maritime law in its handling of the “Arctic Sea’ saga.

Lawyers for the eight men accused of hijacking the “Arctic Sea” freighter as it passed through the Baltic Sea told reporters Wednesday that their clients are peaceful seamen. None of the accused has admitted guilt. The lawyers also stated their intention to come on board the freighter with the investigation. However, no official response has been given to their announcement, as Russian law does not require that lawyers be invited onboard for inspection.

The defenders say that their clients – one Estonian, two Russians and one Latvian citizen among them – climbed onto the ship off Sweden because their inflatable rubber boat was damaged and they needed help.

Egons Rusanovs, a lawyer at Rusanovs and Partners, says “Russia has no relation to the current preliminary investigation into this case. This fact contradicts concrete norms of international law, in particular, the convention on maritime law adopted in 1982. This case should be under jurisdiction of either Malta or Sweden,” insists the lawyer.

Questioning Russia’s right to investigate in the first place, lawyers also say the suspects are being held illegally.

Dmitry Pronin, a lawyer who represents detained Latvian citizen Vitalij Lepin, believes that “this arrest is illegal and it’s without ground, because in accordance with the Russian Criminal Code, the type of punishment should be decided within 48 hours after the factual detention. In this case it took four days to specify the preventive punishment.”

Russian authorities continue to defend their actions.

“Let me repeat once again: The Russian Federation and the investigative committee were strictly following international and maritime law,” Markin said.

Complicating matters, Viktor Matveyev, the director of the company that operates the “Arctic Sea,” announced that the company was bankrupt in large part due to the mishandling of the situation by the Russian government. In a statement Matveyev said, "Money needs to be found to continue using the vessel, to bring it back to proper working condition, to provide it with everything necessary, as well as to pay back our creditors."

Over the next couple of days, Spanish, Maltese and Russian officials are planning to work out arrangements for the ship’s transfer, but there is no official word as to when that will take place. In the meantime, one thing is clear: The mystery and intrigue that surrounded the ship initially will only continue when other institutions begin their own investigations into the matter.

The saga has prompted wide speculation that the ship may have been carrying secret weapons or other contraband cargo. No proof of the claim was made public, and several officials have deemed the theories groundless.

On Wednesday RIA Novosti news agency reported that the wood the ship was supposed to be carrying according to its manifest was different from the one found onboard. Instead of redwood the vessel was carrying pine.

The “Arctic Sea” fell off the radar in late July after leaving a Finnish port for Algeria. Russian naval vessels intercepted the ship weeks later off Cape Verde after an intense international search.