Nigeria on Saturday returned a vessel, MT San Padre Pio, to the Swiss government, three years after it was seized by the Nigerian Navy.
The navy arrested the vessel and its 16 Ukrainian nationals on January 23, 2018 for illegal entry and transport of gas oil into Nigeria’s waters without permit.
An official in the Federal Ministry of Justice, Dr Francis Oni, handed over the vessel and cargo to the representatives of the Swiss government at a brief ceremony in Onne, Rivers.
Oni said after the seizure of the vessel its crew were charged to the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt for trial.
“MT San Padre Pio was caught transferring gas oil into another ship on Nigerian waters in the middle of the night without permission from relevant authorities.
“Unfortunately, the Swiss government, probably not understanding how the system of Nigeria works, instituted a court action.
“The Swiss government sought the prescription of provisional measures at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg, Germany.
“Thereafter, the court made a provisional ruling requesting Switzerland to issue in favour of Nigeria, a bond of 14 million US Dollars.
“The court also requested Switzerland to enter into an undertaking that is binding under international law, to produce the suspects wherever their presence was required by the court,” he said.
Oni said that based on the ruling of the ITLOS, Nigeria was required to release the vessel, pending final determination of the tribunal.
According to him, the federal government later discharged and acquitted the sailors while some members of the crew stayed onboard to maintain the vessel.
He said in spite of Nigeria’s willingness to comply fully with the ruling of the court, Switzerland could not fulfil the condition of the tribunal hence further detention of the ship.
“Subsequently, the then Vice President and now President of Switzerland, Guy Parmelin, and Nigeria Vice President Osinbajo entered into high level talks.
“Both vice presidents held talks for the two countries to amicably settle the matter through the diplomatic channel.
“The talks culminated in the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on May 20 for the unconditional release of MT San Padre Pio to the Swiss government.
“The MoU also stated that after its release, the vessel would depart Nigeria’s maritime space, while the Swiss government would proceed to withdraw the suit from the tribunal,” he explained.
The ministry official said the merchant ship was released to its owners because of the bilateral relationship that existed between both countries.
The ship was released to its captain, Shajedul Islam and the Nigerian partners, Blue Sea Maritime Services Limited.
On his part, the Commander, Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) Pathfinder, Commodore Abdullahi Ahmed, said the navy had a mandate to arrest international vessels which entered Nigeria’s territorial waters without permit.
Ahmed, who jointly signed the handover documents with others, said after the arrest of such vessels the defaulting ships were handed over to appropriate agencies for investigation and possible prosecution.
“This is because illegal entry into any country’s maritime space without permission from relevant authorities is a very serious offence.
“So, the Nigerian navy is on high alert to prevent illicit vessels from entering the nation’s waters to carry out illicit activities such as oil theft and illegal fishing, among others,” he added.
The naval officer said that international waters could not be policed by one country alone hence the collaboration of countries to keep the maritime environment safe and secured.