Families of seven Gujarati sailors languishing in an Iranian jail for more than a year for allegedly smuggling oil have sought the Modi government’s intervention to bring the seamen home.
The families of the sailors, who were on board a cargo ship and hail from the coastal town of Salaya in the western state’s Jamnagar district, have not heard from the men after they were jailed in January 2016.
The sailors are innocent and were forced to carry diesel by the ship’s Dubai-based owner, say the families, which have little information on when the men would be home. They have not had a court hearing even once.
“My husband left for Sharjah and reached Tehran with the vessel captain Salim Sanghar and five crew in October 2015. Since then, they have not returned. They are said to be in a jail in Chabahar,” said Fatima, wife of Aejaj Sanghar.
Chabahar is Iran’s only oceanic port. India has signed a deal to develop and operate the port, which will be of strategic and economic importance.
In November 2015, Salim and Aejaj along with Rashid Bhaya, Shabir Subhania, Sultan Sumbhania, Faruk Sanghar and Akbar Sanghar sailed from Chabahar on a cargo ship, Al Mustafa, and returned to the port town after transporting goods between Dubai and Somalia, Salaya Vessels Association president Adam Bhaya said.
The crew were again called for duty by the owner of Al Mustafa identified only as Mustak, a Somali national based in Dubia. He asked the men to escort another vessel, which was recently commissioned, as well.
The families do not know much about Mustak. He sent air tickets and arranged UAE visas for the men on the recommendation of another sailor.
According to the families, the new vessel was loaded with around 200 barrels of diesel. But before the two ships could cross Iranian waters, the country’s coast guard stopped them for inspection. As the crew didn’t have the documents to carry diesel, they were captured and thrown into jail.
“The worst part is the men have no idea how long they will remain imprisoned. So far, they have not been produced in a court,” said Bhaya, who met the men in jail in September 2016.
They had written to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and the families were hopeful of a positive outcome as Iran was a friendly nation, Bhaya said.
In the past, too, Gujarati sailors have landed in Iranian jails. While many have been released, some are still being held captive.
Sea trade between Gujarat and Iran and other Gulf countries goes back to the 16th century, with vessels and seamen from the Saurashtra peninsula transporting goods.
These days, two Salayas — one in Kutch district and the other in Jamnagar – continue to be the centres for wooden ships and their crew. The seamen from these two towns are known for their skills and are frequently hired by ship owners based in the Gulf.