Suez Rajan Ltd guilty plea to US commerce offences is published after five months under wraps

Suez Rajan Ltd, the owner of tankship Suez Rajan (IMO 9524475) pleaded guilty five months ago to conspiring to violate US international commerce laws, but the plea has only just been published because the US had concerns at the time that Iran might retaliate.. The company signed an agreement in March this year with the Department of Justice, pleading guilty to one count of conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. That Act gave the US president power to freeze and confiscate foreign assets.

The US said on Friday that it had halted a multi-million dollar shipment of crude oil by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that was being shipped in violation of sanctions against Iran. The Iranian oil being carried on the vessel was seized by the US and taken, along with the vessel itself, to a Texas port in the Gulf of Mexico, where it arrived in May.

Operator Empire Navigation Inc entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the US on April 19th in which it promised to transport the 980,000 barrels of the Iranian oil to the US for seizure and forfeiture, according to the now unsealed court filing in Washington federal court. Under the accord, the US won’t prosecute the company in exchange for its cooperation.

The US government said that it had asked the court to seal the proceedings given that “revelation of this action was likely to cause security risks to the defendants, the government, as well as the vessel and its crew members,” according to the filing.

The US seized the Suez Rajan in April while it was en route to China. That move saw Iran in retaliation seize the US vessel Advantage Sweet, which was carrying Kuwaiti oil for Chevron.

“Due to the public attention this matter has received and the threats of retaliation by the Iranian government, the government seeks the ability to publicly comment on this operation, and the sealed materials, at such time as would minimize risks posed by the threat of Iranian retaliation,” the US said in the unsealed filing.

The US said that the matter could be made public now that the oil had been offloaded. That took several months to achieve because companies were fearful that an association with the unloading could threaten the safety of their vessels in the Arabian Gulf.

The case is US v. Empire Navigation Inc., 1:23-cr-00088, US District Court, District of Columbia (Washington). The Marshall Islands company is the registered owner of the tanker. It agreed to a three-year probation period and a $2.46mn fine.

The Suez Rajan has been in US waters since May after the US redirected it under a court order with the co-operation of Empire Navigation Inc.

The Suez Rajan had taken delivery of nearly 1m barrels of oil from the Virgo as long ago as February 2022. The transfer was spotted through the use of satellite photographs and transponder analysis by US pressure group United Against Nuclear Iran. The oil had been sourced from Iran’s Kharg Island.

Prosecutors said in a court filing that, as part of the scheme to move the Iranian oil, the crew of the Suez Rajan visited a third vessel, taking on only a small amount of oil from that ship, but pretending to have loaded its entire cargo from it.

The Suez Rajan was financed by Fleetscape, an affiliate of the Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital. Fleetscape had provided lease financing to Empire Navigation. That, the US decided, provided a sufficient link to the US to make legal the seizing of the vessel. After UANI raised the issue, the ship waited near Singapore, close to the area where it had taken on the oil. On April 7th 2023, more than a year later, and after discussions between the US and the ships operator, it began a voyage up the Malacca Strait, west across the Indian Ocean and then crossed the Atlantic. It arrived at the Galveston Offshore Lightering Area off the coast of Houston on May 30th , where it has remained ever since. The cargo was discharged between Aug 20th  and September 5th. The oil was then taken by another vessel to a terminal in Houston.

2011-built, Marshall Islands-flagged, 81,282 gt Suez Rajan is owned by Suez Rajan Ltd care of manager Empire Navigation Inc of Athens, Greece. It is entered with UK Club on behalf of Suez Rajan Ltd. As of September 8th it remained in the Gulf of Mexico.