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Indonesia presses China for witness in deaths of fishing boat crews

  • Indonesia is calling for a Chinese witness to testify in a human trafficking probe over the deaths of four Indonesian sailors on board Chinese fishing vessels.
  • Police in Indonesia have pressed charges against three worker placement agencies that recruited the men, but need further evidence to charge a fourth agency, responsible for recruiting two of the four men who later died.
  • Three of the victims died at sea and were dumped overboard; the fourth died at a South Korean port.
  • The vessel where two of the men died, the Long Xing 629, is suspected of engaging in illegal fishing; experts note that slavery at sea and illegal fishing are strongly intertwined.

JAKARTA — Indonesian authorities say they’re still waiting for China’s response to a request to turn over a witness in an investigation into alleged human trafficking that led to the deaths of four workers on board Chinese-flagged fishing vessels.

The foreign ministry said on July 18 it had submitted the request to the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta more than a week earlier, and that it would press on for a response.

The Chinese witness is being sought for questioning in the case of four Indonesian worker placement agencies that recruited Indonesian nationals to work on board the Long Xing 629, a Chinese tuna fishing vessel suspected of using forced labor to engage in illegal fishing, including shark finning. Fisheries experts say slavery at sea and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing are closely intertwined.

Shark fins on board the Chinese tuna fishing boat Long Xing 629. Image courtesy of the Environmental Justice Foundation.

report by the Environmental Justice Foundation found that one Indonesian crew member of the Long Xing 629 fell sick and died in December 2019, while another died after being transferred to the sister ship Long Xing 802. The bodies of both men were dumped at sea.

On March 27 this year, all of the Indonesian crews from the two vessels were transferred to the Tian Yu 8 and Long Xing 605, both also part of the same fleet, which then sailed to South Korea. One of the men died on board the Tian Yu and was dumped at sea, and another died in the South Korean port city of Busan, reportedly of pneumonia, after the boats’ arrival on April 23. All four vessels are owned by China’s Dalian Ocean Fishing Ltd.

Fourteen Indonesians were eventually repatriated in early May 2020. They, along with the four who died, were illegally recruited by worker placement agencies in Indonesia, identified by law enforcement as PT Lakemba Perkasa Bahari, PT Alfira Perdana Jaya, PT Sinar Muara Gemilang and PT Karunia Bahari Samudera.

Police have charged six people from three of the agencies with engaging in human trafficking, for which they could face up to 15 years in jail and fines of up to 600 million rupiah ($41,200) each if convicted. Police have not yet charged anyone from PT Karunia Bahari Samudera, citing a lack of witnesses, even though it was responsible for recruiting two of the men who died.

Pahrur Roji Dalimunthe, one of the lawyers representing the surviving workers, said they were seeking a comprehensive prosecution of all involved, as well as restitution for the survivors and the families of the dead workers. He said the restitution should be commensurate with the payment promised to each of the fishermen to work on the ship for two years, and the physical and psychological losses they suffered during their ordeal.

“The fact is that only staff members have been charged. We’re hoping that the corporate entities and owners [of the agencies] will also be charged,” Roji told Mongabay in a phone interview.

Roji said holding the owners and companies liable would make it more likely for the restitution to be paid. “If it’s just some managers being charged, they can’t afford to pay off that much restitution, and the corporations will carry on operating,” he said.

He called on the governments of Indonesia and other countries involved in the case to initiate a cross-border investigation to unveil other stakeholders, including the buyers of the fish caught by the vessels where the Indonesian crews were abused.

“When a seafood company is found to be buying catches from boats that do these practices, nobody will want to buy the products, especially markets in Europe and the U.S.,” Roji said. “When consumers stop buying, certainly these abusive practices will end.”

Indonesian migrant workers often experience life-threatening challenges on board foreign fishing vessels in distant waters. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

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