As the Foreign Minister of Iran, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian arrives in India in early February, hopes of a ‘ghar-wapsi have rekindled in five Indian youths, including two from Mumbai, stranded there since the past two years.
They are Naveen M. Singh (New Delhi), Pranav A. Tiwari, 22, (Patna), Thamizh R. Selvan, 32, (Chennai), Aniket S. Yenpure, 30 and Mandar M. Worlikar, 27, (Mumbai).
Their distraught families, waiting to see them, are fervently hoping that Iran will take an expeditious stand on repatriating their sons back to India.
“We are optimistic that the Indian government would raise the issue of our helpless children there with the dignitary Amir-Abdollahian and urge his intervention for remedial measures,” one of the parents, Sham Yenpure, told IANS.
The saga of the five youngsters, harbouring dreams of a better future, began when they flew to Iran to join merchant navy ships in 2019 with valid qualifications and documents, through an Indian agent.
In February 2020, during one ‘black voyage’ in the high seas off Oman, they were unwittingly trapped in a deadly maritime narcotics smuggling racket, leading to their arrest and jail. Even after their acquittal in the case, they are languishing in Iran since then.
Their frantic families have written letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Ministry of External Affairs, the Iranian government, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and other diplomatic officials, but to no avail.
From mid-2019, the excited five-some enthusiastically worked on their maiden ship jobs till the treacherous voyage in February 2020 on a ship, ‘MV Artin10’, owned by an Iranian, Razaee Mukkadam, which changed the course of their lives.
They sailed on several voyages lasting 6-7 weeks from Iran to deliver a variety of cargo in Kuwait, Muscat and other ports, with the ship’s master, Capt M. Rasool Gharebi.
“On February 20 (2020), Capt Gharebi suddenly ordered the ship to drop anchor mid-sea, around 140 kms off Muscat. Later, another vessel came and unloaded what seemed like small ‘rice bags’ on our ship,” Aniket Yenpure said, recounting the harrowing experience over the phone from Iran.
Since such high seas cargo transfers are illegal as per international maritime laws, some of the crewmen secretly recorded the operation on their mobile phones as evidence for the Iranian police and customs authorities later.
The very next morning, an Iranian Navy ship intercepted ‘MV Artin10’, arrested all aboard and transferred them to the naval vessel.
Capt Gharebi later admitted that “the Indian crewmen were innocent and had no knowledge of the illicit cargo transfer operation in the high seas”. He even attempted to commit suicide by stabbing himself, but was rushed to the small Konarak Port and survived.
The five Indian youths were also offloaded at the same port town, arrested by the local Counter-Narcotics Department, and shunted to custody by a Konarak Court. Subsequently, Gharebi and the vessel owner Mukkadam were also arrested.
It was only during the court proceedings that the Indians learnt that the ‘rice bags’ actually contained 1.50 tonnes of banned narcotics and they were willy-nilly ensnared in a maritime smuggling racket.
The youngsters then spent the next nearly 13 months in jail – though they had not committed any crime, rued the father Sham Yenpure in Mumbai.
After some months, the case was transferred from the Konarak Court to the Chabahar Court which pronounced them innocent on March 8, 2021 and ordered their immediate release.
As the delighted youth went to collect their passports and other documents, the Konarak Counter-Narcotics Department re-arrested them and produced them before the local Court.
Though the Konarak Court also ordered their forthwith release as per the Chabahar Court ruling, it withheld their passports and other travel documents — effectively leaving the five youngsters grounded there since March 10, 2021.
They spent the next five months as vagabonds, running from one place to another, living on dole and barely able to survive in extreme weather. The prime accused Capt Gharebi died in jail in December 2021.
After their plight was first highlighted by IANS (July 4, 2021), the Indian Embassy in Iran came to their rescue and shifted them to a single room in Hostel Marmano in Tehran where their basic needs are taken care of.
“As the Konarak Court raised certain objections to the Chabahar Court verdict in April 2021, the case was transferred to the Supreme Court of Iran. After two months, in end-June 2021, the apex court quashed the Chabahar Court judgment. The latest (2022) we hear is that our matter may be heard afresh by the lower courts,” said a shaken Aniket Yenpure over the phone.
The youngsters have demanded legal assistance for the upcoming court battle, but officialdom is awaiting a nod from the Ministry of External Affairs.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at email@example.com)