4 years on, kin fight to trace missing captain

Ship was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2010, but owner abandoned rescue efforts after $10mn ransom was demanded.

Written by Utkarsh Anand | New Delhi | Updated: May 5, 2014 1:14:15 am
Dheeraj disappeared after he was beaten up by pirates as he stood up for his crew members. Dheeraj disappeared after he was beaten up by pirates as he stood up for his crew members.

Among the distressed crew of the Egyptian vessel MV Iceberg-1 on the high seas, Dheeraj Tiwari, the chief officer in command of the ship, was certainly the most ill-fated one.

The Iceberg-1 was hijacked by Somalia-based pirates on March 29, 2010. It was soon abandoned by the owners who would normally pay the ransom. The only interested parties left were the crew and their families; both of whom were unable to raise money for a ransom of US$10 million. At the time of the attack, the Panamanian-flagged ship had a crew of six Indians, besides nationals from Pakistan, Yemen, Ghana, Sudan and Philippines.

After 33 miserable months, 22 crew members were finally rescued by the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF), a UAE-financed force meant to combat piracy on the ground in Puntland, in December 2012.

The ordeal for Dheeraj’s parents however failed to end. He was not found on the vessel and the stories that his parents heard from the other crew members left them shattered.

Dheeraj, 27, had a reputation for sticking up for the rest of the men on the vessel — a temperament that invited torture by the pirates. He was beaten up mercilessly, whipped with electrical cable and even trussed up and left hanging upside down. As some of the crew members said, Dheeraj disappeared from the ship after a severe beating one day and the pirates feigned ignorance about his whereabouts.

But Dheeraj’s family is leaving no stone unturned to find the truth. “My son could still be held ashore. He stood up for everyone else and perhaps that is why he was taken off the ship. He may still be held somewhere as a hostage and we will not rest until we hear about him,” his father Purushottam told The Indian Express.

The family has appealed to the President, the Prime Minister and to all other people and organisations who could possibly help. While the clock is ticking away for him, the Supreme Court is also involved in the matter now.

Social activist and advocate Gaurav Kumar Bansal has filed a PIL, seeking all information from the government on its efforts to get Indian seamen released from the captivity of pirates and to disclose the protocol that is followed when an Indian national is reported to be missing on the high seas or elsewhere.

The Ministry of External Affairs, in its affidavit Friday, told the court that the authorities have initiated action through the CBI and the Inter-Ministerial Group to seek help from the Interpol, UN bodies and maritime NGOs to trace Dheeraj. “However, so far there has not been any breakthrough in ascertaining his whereabouts,” it conceded.

The MEA said Indian High Commission had also requested the new government in Somalia in January to provide information regarding Dheeraj but “no conclusive information” has been forthcoming from them. The government assured the court that it will continue making best efforts, “as practical”, to track Dheeraj.

But the family is not convinced. “The time is running out for my son. We don’t know whether there is any substantial action plan or he is left to fend on his own at a place and in a situation completely unknown to us,” said his father. Tiwai says he would continue prodding the new government to help track his son.

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