Criminalisation of masters - the Hebei Spirit saga continues


Published: 8 April 2009

Too often in recent times, seafarers have been unfairly detained and prosecuted. In the case of the Hebei Spirit, organisations from across the world’s shipping industry have issued a vigorous joint protest at the continuing unjust and unreasonable detention of the two merchant ship’s officers. Skuld continues to work for their release.

On 7 December 2007, the Hebei Spirit was lying at a designated anchorage off the port of Daesan, when it was struck by a crane barge owned by Samsung after the towage wire pulling the crane barge broke. As a result, about 10,900 tons of oil spilled and polluted Korea’s picturesque coastline.

As the incident took place in the middle of the South Korean presidential election, the political machine was in high gear. Despite the acquittal by the Daesan District Court of First Instance in June last year of the master and chief officer, the Korean prosecution have still been determined to detain them - for as long as a year - for further hearings.

With political pressure ever present, the prosecution decided  to appeal the Daesan District Court of First Instance’s innocent verdict and referred the case to the Daejeon Court of Appeal. This in effect meant a retrial.

Between the First Instance Daesan District Court’s innocent verdict and the decision by the prosecution to appeal, the Inchon Maritime Safety Tribunal (IMST) issued a decision on the cause of the collision, finding that the masters of the Marine Spread and the master and chief officer of the Hebei Spirit were to blame.

Although the crew of the Hebei Spirit fully complied with the provisions of Shipboard Oil Pollution Emergency Plans (SOPEP), the IMST decision penalised them for following these very guidelines. This proved crucial. It was the basis for the prosecution to lodge their appeal and also to amend the indictments. The master and chief officer effectively faced new charges in the middle of an Appeal trial.

The decision by the IMST was appealed to the Central Maritime Safety Tribunal (KMST) , which on 4 December 2008 endorsed the findings of the IMST. This decision was issued days before the Daejeon Court of Appeal found the master and chief officer guilty and sentenced them to 18 months and eight months in prison respectively.

It is generally accepted that the KMST did not follow IMO/ILO guidelines on the Fair Treatment of Seafarers in the Event of a Maritime Accident.

Appeals in December were lodged on behalf of the master and chief officer to the Supreme Court, which is expected to issue its judgement later this year.

In January 2009, the saga continued as the officers were granted bail and now await the judgement of the Supreme Court.

Blog - Justice for Hebei Spirit: 


In early February, Skuld and the owners of the Hebei Spirit took out a USD 200 million recourse action against Samsung for the 2007 Hebei Spirit oil spill.

A parallel USD 200 million recourse action is being pursued by the International Oil Pollution Compensation (IOPC) Fund against Samsung Heavy Industries (SHI) in the Ningbo Maritime Court in China. In total, therefore, SHI now face claims, costs and losses totaling over USD 400 million.