THE "theft and/or misappropriation" of some 295,000 barrels of crude oil belonging to Cambodia by the owners, managers and crew of a tanker – detained by Indonesian authorities in July – and their accomplices “constitute criminal acts pursuant to the relevant Cambodian laws”.

This is according to a new statement issued by the Cambodian Ministry of Mines and Energy to affirm the Kingdom’s ownership of the crude oil and to set the record straight in the contentious case of the Bahamian-flagged MT Strovolos.

The Indonesian Navy on August 25 said it was holding the oil tanker, and interrogating its Bangladeshi captain and two compatriots, 13 Indians and a trio from Myanmar at its base on Indonesia’s Batam island, near Singapore.

And on September 22, Batam District Court sentenced captain Sazzedeen SM to 15 days in prison and fined him 100 million rupiah ($7,000) in case number 531/Pid.B/2021/PN Btm for anchoring the vessel in Indonesian waters without permission, BenarNews reported citing a court document of the ruling.

Indonesian media earlier reported that the captain violated Article 317 in conjunction with Article 193 Paragraph 1 of Law No 17/2008 on shipping, for which the maximum imprisonment is one year and a maximum fine of 200 million rupiah ($14,000).

Naval authorities have said the tanker was loaded with 297,686.518 barrels (nearly 47.33 million litres) of oil and en route to Batam, from Thailand.

The charterer of the MT Strovolos is a company belonging to KrisEnergy group companies, which on December 29 extracted Cambodia’s first drops of oil, from the offshore Cambodia Block A concession.

World Tankers Management Pte Ltd (WTM), the Singapore-headquartered operator of the vessel, on September 27 maintained that the crew were “innocent” of any wrongdoing and being held “in violation of their human rights”, and that Cambodia’s assertion that the oil cargo was transported illegally was “without foundation”.

“The Government of Cambodia has not provided any proof to the owners to support its claim that it owns the cargo on board the vessel,” it claimed, calling on the Indonesian government to order the crew’s immediate release.

In response to WTM’s human rights violations comments, the ministry said: “At all stages, the Royal Government of Cambodia has respected, and will continue to respect, the human rights of the crew.

“However, always consistent with that, where criminal offences are committed, they should be legally prosecuted. Nothing is unethical about doing so.

“The Royal Government of Cambodia is seeking to bring to justice those charged with having committed serious criminal offences, now that the Indonesian proceedings have been completed.

“The right to a fair trial and due process is ensured for anyone extradited to Cambodia to face prosecution for breaches of Cambodian laws, as in this case,” it said.

Addressing the ownership of the crude oil, the ministry said it “needs to correct various assertions and statements made in the press on behalf of the owners and managers of MT Strovolos”.

“The true position is that the crude oil has at all relevant times been the property of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” it said. “The ownership of the crude oil and the violation of Cambodian laws were clearly notified to, among others, the owners and managers and crew of MT Strovolos some months ago.

“However, they have not taken any action to return the crude oil to the Kingdom of Cambodia, and instead MT Strovolos called at various ports in Thailand and Indonesia, and again switched off her AIS [automatic identification system] along her passage for considerable periods at various stages.

“[These include] when – leaving Cambodian waters without permission or authority with the crude oil belonging to the Kingdom of Cambodia; leaving Thai waters; and entering Indonesian waters,” it added.

According to a lawyer based in Cambodia, in order to lawfully depart from the Kingdom, a vessel carrying crude oil must also comply with customs and immigration laws and procedures. As far as he understands, MT Strovolos had left Cambodia at around midnight without complying with these procedures. This is also a criminal act which is punishable pursuant to Cambodian laws, he said.

He added that as a matter of law, and in line with the basic principle of justice, prosecuting criminals is also “an act of protecting the human rights of the victim”. In this case, the Royal Government of Cambodia could be considered as victim of theft or misappropriation of its property.

Back then, the ministry explained, the vessel “left Cambodian waters illegally, she was on charter to a KrisEnergy company that had a contract to develop Cambodian oil reserves”.

“It appears that there were disputes under the charter between the owners and managers of the vessel and KrisEnergy. Whatever the position was and is, this has nothing to do with the Royal Government of Cambodia.

“The crude oil cannot be the subject of any claim by the owners and managers of MT Strovolos as the crude oil does not belong to the charterer [KrisEnergy].

“As has been emphasised, the crude oil is the property of the Kingdom of Cambodia. In any event, no claim under the charter agreement justifies or permits the unlawful departure of MT Strovolos from Cambodian waters and/or the misappropriation of the crude oil,” it underlined.

The ministry affirmed that the arrests were made after an Interpol red corner notice was issued against the crew at Cambodia’s request. The Indonesian Navy said they picked up the tanker and detained the crew on July 27, three days after the notice was posted.

The ministry said the government, “exercising its rights and duties under international and domestic Cambodian laws, requested via Interpol and in direct contact with the Indonesian authorities that the crew be arrested and extradited to the Kingdom of Cambodia, in accordance with the procedures set out in the ASEAN Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters and relevant laws on Cambodia”.

It also pointed out that WTM’s supposed concern over the crew’s welfare, as indicated in various press statements, appears “to be at odds with the fact that the crew have failed to respect the safety of life at sea”.

This is evident “as they had the vessel's AIS deactivated during various periods and because the crew had MT Strovolos leave Cambodian waters without authority or permission with the crude oil belonging to the Kingdom of Cambodia”, it said.

“Further, they would by now, in any event, have organised the prompt restoration of the crude oil to its rightful owner, the Kingdom of Cambodia, and would desist from their attempts to extract money from the Kingdom of Cambodia for matters that relate to disputes they may have with KrisEnergy.

“We are grateful for the cooperation we have received from the Indonesian authorities so far and greatly appreciate their assistance. It reflects the continued strengthening of the relationship between the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Republic of Indonesia and of the ASEAN community,” the ministry said.

Ministry director-general for Petroleum Cheap Sour affirmed on September 30 that the government had submitted all the necessary documents to its Indonesian counterpart concerning its request for the return of all crew members, the vessel and crude oil.

He told The Post: “Now, we are carefully monitoring the proceedings of both our Indonesian counterparts and Interpol on what we have requested. We will do our best to respond to all requests from the Indonesian authorities.”