After being detained for 19 months in Louisiana, the master of the Ridgeway Alexander Z is allowed to return to Russia.
The captain of a Russian tanker who was charged in a six-count indictment for alleged involvement in a pollution case has been acquitted on all charges, his attorney said.
Vjaceslavs Birzakovs, master of the oil tanker Ridgebury Alexandra Z, is able to return to Russia following his complete acquittal by a jury on May 23. Birzakovs and 10 other crew members had been detained for more than 19 months in Lake Charles, La., while awaiting a trial.
The chief engineer and chief officer of the ship pleaded guilty. The engineer was sentenced to one year of probation, and the officer is scheduled to be sentenced in August.
“I cooperated fully with the Coast Guard’s investigation and am very pleased but not at all surprised by the jury’s verdict,” Birzakovs said. “I have always maintained my innocence and am grateful for the fair trial I received.”
Mike Magner and T.C. Wicker of the Jones Walker law firm represented Birzakovs. The verdict made Birzakovs “a believer in the American jury system,” said Magner. “We are glad that he was vindicated and can now return home to his family and his career.”
The Department of Justice announced in February that Interorient Marine Services Limited, the company that operated the tanker, was convicted and sentenced in the Western District of Louisiana for maintaining false and incomplete records relating to the discharge of oil from the tanker. Under the terms of a plea agreement, Interorient had to pay a fine of $2 million and serve a four-year term of probation, during which all vessels operated by the company and calling on U.S. ports will be required to implement a robust environmental compliance plan.
DOJ said oil cargo residues from the tanker and oily bilge water were illegally dumped from the Ridgebury Alexandra Z directly into the ocean without being properly processed through required pollution prevention equipment, in violation of the U.S. law that enacted the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. The company also admitted that false entries were made in the vessel’s oil record book to conceal the illegal dumping.
Magner attributed the pollution incident, which took place in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Panama, to a combination of lack of skill by crew members and a desire to cover up a mistake once they discovered what they had done. He said other crew members became whistle-blowers, motivated by the big awards that have been given in similar cases. They supplied the U.S. Coast Guard with videos and photographs when the ship arrived in the United States.
“The problem for the captain is he didn’t know this was going on,” said Magner. “It happened unbeknownst to him and that was our defense in the trial.”
He said that after a four-day trial, the jury deliberated for two hours before returning a not guilty verdict.
Magner noted that the Ridgeway Alexander Z was allowed to leave port about a month after it originally was detained in September 2017 after posting a large bond.
Birzakovs and 10 crew members were required to surrender their passports and stay in South Louisiana.
Magner said no one was charged until about 14 months after the ship was detained, and the trial did not take place until May, despite Birzakovs’ request for a speedy trial.
The long wait “was a real burden on the seamen, the officers and the company,“ he said.