Indonesian navy denies it requested payments to release ships

Senior officers of the Indonesian Navy met with media late last month to deny reports of officers soliciting payments from tankers being detained in Indonesian waters.

Reuters has published more than one report in which officers from the Indonesian Navy were alleged to have asked for payments of up to $375,000 to release tankers being detained for illegally anchoring near Batam, an island 20 miles south of Singapore that is home to the island nation’s naval base.

Rear Admiral TNI Arsyad Abdullah said that “I need to convey that the news that says that a Navy officer asked for $375,000 is not true”.

He met with the media after visiting the crude oil tanker named in the Reuters report. He said that it was his authority to detain or release vessels based on information provided by investigators.

During the press conference, the Indonesia Navy presented Vivek Kumar, whom it claimed was captain of the tanker Nord Joy. The captain denied having been asked for a cash payment to release his vessel.

In its report Reuters had said that Indonesia naval officers asked the Nord Joy for a cash payment of $375,000 to release the tanker. It cited two unnamed individuals that it said were involved in negotiations over the unofficial payments.

If a vessel is detained outside Batam it can wait months for its case to be heard in the Indonesian courts. Indonesia interviews the captain and crew and reviews logs to determine the vessel’s purpose for anchoring. The case of a vessel that is found to have anchored illegally is referred to the criminal courts. The maximum fine is approximately $14,000 but a captain of the vessel can also face a maximum penalty of one year in jail.

Agents for the Nord Joy said that the vessel had anchored east of the busy Singapore Strait on May 26th. They said the captain believed he was in international waters, but on May 30th the vessel was boarded by members of the Indonesia Navy. The vessel was later escorted to an anchorage near the Batam naval base. The vessel remains there, with the Indonesians saying that the case was under investigation, but that initial indications were that there was sufficient evidence that the vessel had illegally anchored and would be prosecuted in the courts.

Reports of the alleged soliciting of cash payments date back to last year. A November 2021 report said that more than a dozen vessels had been asked for cash payments, either to a naval officer or via wire transfer to intermediaries.

Citing unnamed shipowners, crew, and maritime security sources, Reuters said that vessels were asked for payments ranging from $250,000 to $300,000. The report said around 30 ships, including tankers, bulk carriers, and a pipeline layer, had all been detained over a three-month period, but that most had been released after making the cash payments.

Arsyad Abdullah confirmed that Indonesia had increased its enforcement efforts in recent months. He suggested that ships waiting for space in Singapore often leave the busy shipping channel seeking to anchor, possibly to save fuel and the cost of anchoring near Singapore. He said Indonesia requires official permits to enter its waters or to anchor in those areas.

He denied reports that crews were kept on shore in cramped and hot detention facilities, saying that once they had been interviewed they were returned to their ships.

“Of course, if it is found that the Navy officers have been proven to have done this, then the Navy will carry out legal processes in accordance with applicable regulations,” said Arsyad.

Another ship where the allegations of bribe-seeking have surfaced was crude oil tanker Seaways Rubymar (IMO 9232618), where former captain and Philippines national Glenn Madoginog said hat he had been held for months at Batam before being transferred to a cramped prison cell, sleeping alongside convicted criminals before returning home more than six months later in May 2022. His ship had been detained on September 16th 2021. Madoginog said that his employers declined to make the requested payment and as a result he and his vessel remained captive in Batam. After a six-month wait, Madoginog was sentenced in March to 60 days in jail. He said that he did not understand what the prosecutor, judge or his interpreter were saying and was unable to give evidence at several court hearings.

Batam District Court spokesman Edy Sameaputty said the trial was conducted according to the relevant criminal law and that Madoginog had been given the right to a defence.

US-based International Seaways, owner of the Seaways Rubymar when it was detained, said it had pursued all legal avenues to get Madoginog and the vessel released, but as a matter of policy, the company does not pay bribes. It said that it did all it could to improve Madoginog’s conditions while he was in custody and continued to provide financial and medical support to him and his family.

Buana Saka Samudera, the Indonesian agent for International Seaways, provided Madoginog with food, bedding and an air conditioning unit for his room on the base and eventually got him his own cell and better food in prison, Madoginog said.

The Seaways Rubymar was renamed the Ruby in April 2022 and has since been scrapped.

Reuters asserted that the father of four was one of dozens of captains held at the Batam naval base after being arrested for anchoring in Indonesian waters without a permit while waiting to enter Singapore, according to a dozen people involved in the cases, including captains, ship owners, intermediaries and insurers.

“The last few months were the worst time of my life,” Madoginog told Reuters from his apartment in Manila

Four captains told Reuters they believed they had been held for ransom in a well-organized extortion scheme that was run by navy members.

David Ledoux, an American who was captain of the fibre-optic cable-laying ship Reliance when it was arrested last year, said it was only the fact that the vessel’s owner made an unofficial payment that kept him out of jail. “This is piracy in its simplest form: arrest the ship, arrest the captain, hold the company ransom, collect the money,” Ledoux told Reuters from his home in North Carolina.

The owner of the Reliance, SubCom, which is an undersea cable company based in the US state of New Jersey, did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

The U.S. embassy in Jakarta told Reuters it was aware of the ship detentions and payments being made to “parties claiming to represent the Indonesian Navy”.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) said that it always investigated matters raised by its members, but claimed that it had yet to receive a request to look into this issue.

Although the area where the ships were detained is more than 12nm from the main Indonesian coastline, and the Reliance and the Seaways Rubymar were anchored in the area, known as East OPL (outside port limits), according to the captains, Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago of over 17,000 islands. This means that its territorial waters are something of a moveable feast. They can for example be drawn around uninhabited islands or drying reefs. Ledoux told Reuters that he had been told where to anchor by SubCom’s agent in Singapore, Ben Line. Madoginog said his anchorage position had been approved by V-Ships, the London-based company managing his tanker.

Other captains also had their rooms on the Batam base upgraded by local agents paid by shipowners, they told Reuters. After captains were released, navy personnel sometimes moved into the refurbished quarters, Madoginog and Ledoux said.

Madoginog said he remained on the base until mid-November, when navy officials sent him and the other captains back to their ships after the November 2021 article about the arrests.