Foreign seafarers tricked into servitude aboard dangerous Iranian ships

Foreign seafarers tricked into servitude aboard dangerous Iranian ships
Above, the Iranian-flagged oil tanker Fortune arrives at the El Palito refinery in Puerto Cabello, in Carabobo, Venezuela on May 25, 2020. (Venezuelan Ministry of Popular Power for Communication/AFP)
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Updated 14 January 2022

Foreign seafarers tricked into servitude aboard dangerous Iranian ships

Foreign seafarers tricked into servitude aboard dangerous Iranian ships
  • Young Indian workers risk being caught up in Tehran’s geopolitical games
  • Some sailors reported being kidnapped by IRGC agents and detained

LONDON: Iranian shipping companies have worked in league with international shipping recruitment firms to force large numbers of Indian seafarers to work in dangerous conditions with little or no pay, The Washington Post has reported.

Thousands of Indian men are reportedly lured to Iran each year by recruiters who guarantee them salaries and experience on reputable ships, sometimes promising assignments in other Middle Eastern countries.

The newspaper interviewed dozens of seafarers who said that they are instead sent to Iran, denied food, and at times forced to transport drugs and sanctioned cargo.

Ashkay Kumar, a 24-year-old cadet from Delhi, said: “They target seafarers for work without salary. It’s all a big trap. They forced us to work like slaves.”

Another, Ashwani Pandit, said that he had to take out loans to pay a recruiter $2,600 to secure a job onboard a ship that he believed was based in Dubai.

But he was then unexpectedly handed a plane ticket and visa for Iran.

When he found out at the last minute that he had been tricked, he was denied a refund and had little choice but to travel to Iran, where he worked on a small cargo boat for seven months transporting urea and iron to Iraq.

“My friends working on vessels in Iran warned me that companies there don’t pay salaries,” he added. “The same thing happened to me.”

Dozens of others reported paying thousands of dollars to recruiters for jobs and visas, only to find that they were tricked into working in Iran, rather than a more desirable Middle Eastern country.

Pandit left Iran empty-handed in August 2020 — his employer refusing to sign an exit visa until he had signed a contract stating that he did not require payment for his work.

Indians make up a significant portion of maritime workers worldwide. About 316,000 seafarers — or 20 percent of the total worldwide workforce — hail from India.

And Indian labor is especially appealing to Iranian companies, which struggle to recruit because of crippling sanctions that make the hiring process more difficult.

Andy Bowerman, regional director for the Middle East and South Asia at the Mission to Seafarers charity, told The Washington Post: “There is a close relationship between Iran and India, and therefore it is quite attractive in terms of securing visas.”

He added: “There are a lot of desperate people who will take a contract that they may or may not know has some risk to it.”

Many of those people working on Iranian ships also risk being caught up in geopolitical events far beyond their own control.

Jameel Akhtar, 29, from Mumbai, was among a group of seafarers who told of working on vessels smuggling fuel and other Iranian goods facing restrictions under US sanctions.

Akhtar said that after his tanker was caught transporting Iranian fuel in late 2020, it was detained by authorities from the UAE and remained anchored in port for months.

Then in July, four people wearing black masks and goggles, and brandishing guns, boarded the ship, tied the crew members’ hands behind their backs and threatened to shoot anybody who moved.

The crew was held hostage while the tanker was sailed to Bandar Abbas, Iran. Crew members were then released and assisted by the local Indian embassy to fly home.

Investigators concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was likely responsible for the abduction.


Kurdish Iraqi farmer sprouts online advice, green awareness

Kurdish Iraqi farmer sprouts online advice, green awareness
Updated 09 August 2022

Kurdish Iraqi farmer sprouts online advice, green awareness

Kurdish Iraqi farmer sprouts online advice, green awareness
  • With almost half a million Facebook followers, Azad Mohamad posts weekly videos on topics such as protecting fruit trees, dealing with insects and helping people get more from their farms and gardens

HALABJA: Kurdish Iraqi farmer Azad Mohamad has become a social media star by sharing tips on growing fresh fruit and vegetables in the sun-parched country that is highly vulnerable to climate change.

The moustachioed 50-year-old with almost half a million Facebook followers posts weekly videos on topics such as protecting fruit trees, dealing with insects and helping people get more from their farms and gardens.

“They should make you agriculture minister,” one of his fans, Ahmed Hassan, commented on a recent video.

Mohamad also uses his popular online platform to raise awareness about protecting the environment and the need to support local farmers, in his native Kurdistan region and beyond.

“Developed-country farmers have government support and harvesting machines,” said Mohamad.

“Our farmers do everything themselves with their own sweat — and when they lose money at the end of the year, they start over with the same passion and energy.”

He also has a message for authorities in Iraq, which the UN classifies as the world’s fifth most vulnerable country to climate change and where many are mired in poverty despite Iraq’s oil wealth.

“Our land is fertile, and our earth is like gold,” Mohamad said.

Therefore, he said, the government should “focus on agriculture rather than oil, for a sustainable economy.”

From his farm near Halabja, Mohamad squats among grape vines and other plants, wearing traditional Kurdish clothing as a friend uses a mobile phone to film him.

Many of his followers, he said, are not farmers but people who “have transformed their roof into gardens — and that’s a way to better preserve the environment.”

He invites his Facebook followers to post their questions, and says some farmers have sent him videos of their crops, thanking him for his help.

“That makes me very happy,” he said.

In one video, he advises farmers to space their trees out by just two meters instead of four to keep the soil shady and damp, protecting it from the scorching summer heat.

“With desertification, and low rainfall, we must change how we plant trees,” he said.

“Look at these tomatoes,” he added, gesturing at a group of plants. “Because they are in the shade, they are juicy and perfect — whereas these that are in the direct sun have been burned.”

Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region has been spared the worst effects of desertification, water scarcity and drought that have ravaged other parts of the country.

“The region has high rainfall precipitation compared to the rest of Iraq,” said a 2019 study involving UN agencies and the autonomous Kurdistan regional government.

But the report warned that “local agricultural production is in severe competition with foreign goods with largely lower prices” ... “mainly from Turkey and Iran, whose products have flooded Iraqi markets.”

It urged “more investments” to improve irrigation, along with water management to promote sustainability, to ensure the efficient use of resources and “mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Hamid Ismail Abdulrahman, a fellow farmer in Halabja, said low water levels in wells had impacted agricultural development.

Twice a week, the 47-year-old opens his farm to families who can buy “fresh and organic products,” from tomatoes to corn and eggplant.

He said climate change had greatly affected agriculture all over Iraq, though “southern Iraq has the lion’s share of this impact, while in the north the effect is less.”

With Iraq already witnessing record low rainfall and high temperatures in recent years, Mohamad warned that “if the government doesn’t act now and present a concrete plan ... the damage will be done.”

Mohamad has recently opened a small educational area on his farm, and now also receives visits from university students.

He says he hopes his initiatives will have a longer-term impact.


Erdogan plays up diplomatic gains with eye on elections

Erdogan plays up diplomatic gains with eye on elections
Updated 09 August 2022

Erdogan plays up diplomatic gains with eye on elections

Erdogan plays up diplomatic gains with eye on elections
  • As he prepares for what is shaping up to be the biggest electoral challenge of his nearly 20-year rule, the president is playing up his achievements on the global stage

ANKARA: A series of diplomatic wins, capped by the deal to resume Ukraine’s grain exports, provides some respite for President Tayyip Erdogan from Turkey’s economic strife and offers a blueprint of his campaign strategy for elections due next year.

As he prepares for what is shaping up to be the biggest electoral challenge of his nearly 20-year rule, the president is playing up his achievements on the global stage.

“Turkey is going through its strongest period politically, militarily and diplomatically,” he told a crowd of thousands of people in northwest Turkey at the weekend, a day after holding talks in Russia with President Vladimir Putin.

Progress internationally contrasts with a grim economic picture at home, with inflation soaring to 79 percent and the lira languishing near record lows it hit during the most recent currency crisis in December.

Opponents blame Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policies, including a series of interest rate cuts despite high inflation and the sacking of three central bank governors since 2019, that have left the country running large current account deficits and reliant on external financing to support the economy.

Erdogan said the fruits of the government’s economic policies — prioritising exports, production and investment — would become clearer in the first quarter of 2023.

In the meantime, government officials and senior members of his ruling AK Party portray the president as a statesman standing against electoral rivals who are nowhere near matching his international credentials.

“Whether you like him or not, Erdogan is a leader,” a senior Turkish official said, arguing that no other international figure had the same level of contact with top global players. “There is no leader in Turkey who can replace him.”

The accord to restart exports from Ukraine, cut off since Russia’s February invasion, could ease grain shortages which have left millions of people vulnerable to hunger and driven up global prices.

Brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, it came after Erdogan secured concessions from NATO over the accession of Nordic countries and initiated a rapprochement with rival powers in the Middle East.

Erdogan also won a pledge in June from US President Joe Biden that he would support the sale of F-16 fighters jets to Turkey, after Washington blocked Ankara from buying more advanced F-35 jets because of its purchase of Russian weaponry.

Erdogan faces parliamentary and presidential elections that must be held by June 2023.

A survey by pollster Metropoll last week found a slight rise in support for his AK Party to 33.8 percent, still comfortably the most for any single party. But he faces a loose alliance of opposition parties, and polls show him trailing opposition presidential candidates.

Topping voter concerns are the state of the economy, and the presence of 3.6 million Syrian refugees, welcomed by Turkey at the start of Syria’s conflict but increasingly seen by Turks as competitors for jobs and services.

“The government is using foreign policy as material to cover up the economic disaster it has dragged the country into, telling tales of ‘diplomatic victory’ at home,” said Erdogan Toprak, a lawmaker from the main opposition CHP and senior adviser to its leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Toprak said that even on the diplomatic front, Erdogan was making concessions that “damage the dignity of our country and drag it into weakness.”

“Voters are aware of the benefits of diplomacy. At times they will complain about the economy or refugees, but they will vote for Erdogan for the continuation of an effective Turkey,” an AK Party official said.


Israel concerned over Russian push to ban Jewish non-profit group

Israel concerned over Russian  push to ban Jewish non-profit group
Updated 09 August 2022

Israel concerned over Russian push to ban Jewish non-profit group

Israel concerned over Russian  push to ban Jewish non-profit group
  • Russia’s Justice Ministry is seeking to liquidate the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel for alleged breaches of privacy laws

JERUSALEM: Israeli President Isaac Herzog spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday about Russia’s attempt to ban the world’s biggest Jewish nonprofit group, which helps Jews move to Israel.

Russia’s Justice Ministry is seeking to liquidate the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel for alleged breaches of privacy laws.

Some Israeli politicians have expressed concern that Russia may be retaliating for Israel’s criticism of its invasion of Ukraine, and about the effect that bilateral tensions might have on Russia’s own Jewish community.

Some also worry that it could damage Russian-Israeli communications on Syria, where Moscow deploys air power in support of the government and Israel has attacked what it describes as Iranian-linked military targets.

“The phone call was frank and honest. The two presidents emphasised the important areas of cooperation between Israel and Russia and agreed to remain in contact,” Herzog’s statement said.

The Kremlin said the men had agreed that contacts about the Jewish Agency would be continued by both countries.

Some 600,000 Russians are eligible to emigrate to Israel because of Jewish heritage, and officials say there has been a rise in applications since the dispute arose.

Herzog, whose post is largely symbolic, said the call with Putin had been coordinated with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


Nasrallah speech sparks fears of power vacuum in Lebanon

Nasrallah speech sparks fears of power vacuum in Lebanon
Updated 09 August 2022

Nasrallah speech sparks fears of power vacuum in Lebanon

Nasrallah speech sparks fears of power vacuum in Lebanon
  • Hezbollah secretary-general raised prospect of a government forming without a new president being elected in September
  • Force of Change Bloc holds meeting in Parliament with eye on opposing Hezbollah

BEIRUT: Doubts were cast over the upcoming presidential election in Lebanon later this year, after Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah called on Lebanese officials “to form a government that enjoys its full powers to assume its responsibilities, whether or not a new president is elected,” on Tuesday.

It was the first time Nasrallah mentioned publicly the possibility of not holding the presidential elections, raising fears of a political vacuum in the crisis-stricken country, similar to that which preceded President Michel Aoun’s election in 2016, and which lasted over two years.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati was tasked on June 23 with forming a new Cabinet, which he presented to Aoun after parliamentary elections last May.

However, Makati’s lineup did not satisfy Aoun, who said the prime minister’s choices undermined him. Communication between the two has been fraught since then, and all attempts to revive forming a government have stalled.

Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri said in a statement he thought a resolution to the impasse at this stage would require “a miracle.”

As things stand, on Sept. 1, Parliament will turn into the elective body of the office of the president, with several rounds of voting set to take place to appoint a new head of state.

Ali Darwish, a member of Lebanon’s Parliament, told Arab News: “Each party has the right to express its opinion on the next political phase the way it deems convenient. Certainly, a government enjoying its full powers is better than a caretaker government. It is a sound demand because a government enjoying its full powers can take decisions.

“We want these elections to take place, just like other events — electing a new Parliament, and tasking the prime minister with the formation of a new government — to be carried out on time. Electing a new president for the country provides stability.”

On Monday, a meeting was held between 16 MPs from the Force of Change bloc, along with a number of other independent and opposition MPs.

The stated objective of the meeting was to “hold discussions in order to agree on a legislative agenda and coordinate on future duties, such as approving the general budget, the financial reform plan and the legislations necessary for the country.”

However, political observers believe the meeting was an early move to identify a candidate to replace Aoun.

If these MPs were able to attract other moderate colleagues, they could form a significant force in Parliament opposing Hezbollah and its allies, potentially preventing a candidate aligned with Hezbollah from being elected president.

Darwish said: “What happened in Parliament last Monday serves the democratic game and the country’s interest, and we approve of it. We do not favor confrontational diversity, as we are in a crucial phase of the economic crisis we are facing and we need everyone’s solidarity.

“Every political party in Lebanon has its own agenda. I hope the presidential elections will be held on time and the democratic game will be fully reflected.”

He added: “Complex files are awaiting the next president, such as the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, the approval of an economic recovery plan, the restructuring of the public sector, and the maritime border demarcation, which requires a complete ruling system.”

Lebanese Forces MP Fadi Karam told Arab News: “Through his speech, Nasrallah insists on keeping the state incapacitated and paralyzed, so Hezbollah can impose its conditions on everyone.”

Karam said the meeting was “a positive event, and an attempt to unify the opposition in the face of Hezbollah, so we can have a majority that represents the people and faces (down) Hezbollah’s plan.”

Hadi Abou El-Hassan of the Progressive Socialist Party said: “The parliamentary elections didn’t limit decision-making to one party. This allows settlement and agreement on broad topics.”

He added: “As a patriotic Lebanese, I can’t link the fate of a country to the fate of Iran, but everyone knows that Lebanon isn’t independent in its decision-making.”


Turkey sends off new drill ship into eastern Mediterranean

Turkey sends off new drill ship into eastern Mediterranean
Updated 09 August 2022

Turkey sends off new drill ship into eastern Mediterranean

Turkey sends off new drill ship into eastern Mediterranean
  • “Our exploration and drilling in the Mediterranean is within our own sovereign dominion,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said
  • Turkey is embroiled in acrimonious disputes with Greece and Cyprus over maritime boundaries and offshore energy rights

ISTANBUL: Turkey’s president inaugurated the country’s newest and largest undersea hydrocarbon drill ship Tuesday that he said would head for a spot northwest of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, which is not claimed by any other country.
“Our exploration and drilling in the Mediterranean is within our own sovereign dominion,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the ceremony in southern Mersin province, only to add: “We don’t need to seek permission or ratification from anyone.”
Turkey is embroiled in acrimonious disputes with Greece and Cyprus over maritime boundaries and offshore energy rights, which triggered high tensions in the eastern Mediterranean two years ago.
Erdogan said Tuesday the new Abdulhamid Han ship would begin drilling at the Yorukler-1 well about 55 kilometers (34 miles) off the coast of Gazipasa, in Antalya province.
“Neither the puppets nor the ones who hold their strings will be able to prevent us from getting our rights in the Mediterranean,” he said, in an apparent reference to Greece and Cyprus on the one hand, and their Western allies on the other.
In the summer of 2020, tensions escalated after Turkey sent a seismic survey ship escorted by warships to an area in the eastern Mediterranean where Greece claims exclusive rights to potential undersea oil and gas deposits. Greece sent its own warships to shadow the Turkish flotilla. Both countries later conducted military exercises as a show of force.
Turkey insists that small Greek islands near the Turkish coast should not be taken into account when delineating maritime boundaries, and accuses Athens of trying to grab an unfair share of the eastern Mediterranean’s resources.
The NATO allies routinely accuse each other of airspace violations. Turkey also claims that Greece has violated international treaties by militarizing eastern Aegean islands close to Turkey.
Turkey’s other drill ships — Fatih, Kanuni and Yavuz — are operating in the Black Sea where Turkey discovered natural gas reserves. All four ships are named after Ottoman sultans.