TWO Filipino crewmen who died on an Australian-bound ship five years ago were “killed by an unknown person or persons,” a coroner in Australia ruled on Wednesday in a case that highlighted the difficulty of protecting workers on “flag of convenience” ships.
Chief cook Cesar Llanto, 42, disappeared overboard from the coal carrier MV Sage Sagittarius on August 30, 2012, as it approached Australian waters in the Coral Sea en route to Newcastle, Australia.
Two weeks later, his friend, Chief Engineer Hector Collado, 55, was killed while the ship was moored at Newcastle Harbor.
Following an inquest that lasted more than 18 months, New South Wales Coroner Sharon Freund on Wednesday ruled that an unknown person or persons killed both men.
“In my view, it would be an extraordinary coincidence if the person(s) who caused Mr. Llanto’s death were not also responsible for Mr Collado’s death,” Freund said in her report, which was posted online.
A third man, Kosaku Monji, 37, a Japanese inspector, was crushed to death in a conveyer belt as the Sage Sagittarius docked in Japan in October 2012, but as his death occurred in Japan, it was part of the Australian inquiry.
Monji had come aboard the ship on September 3, 2012, to investigate Llanto’s disappearance and to investigate reports of trouble among the crew and officers.
The vessel, owned by a Japanese company, was operating under the flag of Panama, using a system known as a “flag of convenience.” The practice involves registering a ship in a country other than that of the ship’s owner to avoid the laws of the owner’s country.
Outside the Coroner’s Court in Glebe, New South Wales, Dean Summers, the national coordinator for the International Transport Workers Federation in Australia, said the flag of convenience system made workers vulnerable in an interview with Australian TV.
“Today the coroner has confirmed that, on board the Sage Sagittarius, a flag of convenience ship, sailing to and from Australia, there has been a double murder.
“This was a murder ship. The Sage Sagittarius—flag of convenience registered in Panama – was a murder ship, and two men have lost their lives, two families have lost their breadwinners, four children have lost their fathers,” Summers said.
“This is a terrible indictment … of the flag of convenience system,” he added.
The inquest report said there was “intense conflict and mistrust among the crew,” and some of the crew, including Llanto, was planning to report the captain, Venancio Salas, to authorities for alleged physical assaults and maltreatment.
A culture of “silence and blacklisting” and “harassment and bullying” existed on board, the report said.|
Captain Salas also allegedly sold guns on board, collecting and sending thousands of dollars to the Philippines and taking a small commission.
Freund said Captain Salas’ captaincy was “in my view clearly unorthodox,” and “he clearly did not brook any opposition to his style of leadership.”
Freund said Llanto was either thrown overboard or killed and his body disposed of later. As his body has never been recovered, she made an open finding as to the cause of his death.
Collado was struck over the head with a weapon or instrument and he was either thrown or fell to his death from the second to the fourth deck. The cause of death was multiple injuries.
Freund noted the inquest was difficult because of the reluctance of most of the crew to cooperate with authorities. Investigators reported some of the crew was scared and intimidated by the three deaths and it was “abundantly clear a number of them did not disclose everything they knew to authorities.”
The Sage Sagittarius carries coal between Australia and Japan and is owned by Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha Line (NYK Line).
When it departed Japan for Newcastle in August 2012, it carried 25 Filipino crewmembers, the report said.
Flag of convenience
In her findings, Freund said a landmark report “Ships of Shame” was published following a parliamentary inquiry two decades ago, yet many of the issues it identified with the practice of flags of convenience had never been addressed.
There are significant practical obstacles to investigating suspected lawlessness on a foreign-flagged vessel, the report found, including crewmembers’ fear that speaking out will affect their ability to find work.
Freund made five recommendations, the most significant of which was the establishment of a permanent standing group comprising the NSW Police, federal police, Australian Maritime Safety Authority, and Australian Transport Safety Bureau to investigate deaths or other crimes on board international vessels bound for or in Australian waters.
For its part, NYK Line said in a statement, “We need time to examine the Coroner’s findings in detail before commenting further. What we can say is the welfare of our ships’ crews is always of the utmost concern to us and we will continue to take all steps to provide a safe working environment.”