Our team has obtained rare footage from sailors abandoned by their employers years ago, leaving them far from their homes in ports or open water. During this three-month investigation, we looked at official documents and contracts provided by crewmembers as well as open-source data to trace the navigation history of these dilapidated vessels before their abandonment. The first part of this special edition, produced in partnership with independent Syrian investigators SIRAJ, reveals a complex set-up of shell companies used by a group of Syrian-Romanian ship owners to evade legal disputes and Western sanctions.
When the East Express, a 97-metre general cargo ship flying the flag of Togo, docked in the Libyan port of Misrata on January 18, 2022, its crew thought they would offload their cargo of sugar and move on. But the port authorities declared the sugar unfit for consumption and impounded the ship. The crew have been there ever since -– two years and counting.
This legal impediment prevented the delivery of the sugar to its Libyan purchaser, eventually leading the ship’s registered owner, Mina Shipping Ltd., to abandon the vessel with its 12-member crew still on board: ten Syrians, one Egyptian and one Indian.
‘We don’t have any food, or water, or wages’
The East Express is capable of carrying more than 5,000 tons of goods, fuel, and ballast. Ammar Sheikha, one of the Syrian sailors stranded on the East Express, explains:
For me, ‘abandonment’ means asking for food, drinks and daily necessities, and not being able to get them from the ship’s owners and manager.
He declared in a video that he sent us in September 2023 that the crew had been “completely abandoned” by the company. “We have no food, no water, and no salaries,” he told us.
The crew contacted ITF Seafarers, a transport workers’ union that provides assistance to the crews of abandoned ships, but say they did not hear back for months.
Ian Ralby, an expert in international maritime law, explains what abandonment is:
Abandonment is when a vessel owner literally abandons the claims to a vessel. It can mean that the crew is left without anyone who actually has legal responsibility for ensuring that they get the fuel, the food, the water and all the services that they need.
With no fuel or electricity, life on board quickly became unbearable. Sheikha told us:
We began to suffer from a lack of supplies and money … We spend most of our time sleeping or on our mobile phones. This is our only distraction. We talk to our families and friends until the day is over.
The crew have not been paid in 12 months. They believe that staying on board is the only way they’ll get their money. At one point, Sheikha says, the company owed him $17,000. When it arrived in Misrata, the East Express flew the flag of Togo, West Africa. Publicly available maritime registries like Marine Traffic and EQUASIS indicate that it was owned by Romania-based Mina Shipping Ltd.
When we contacted Mina Shipping at the Romanian number that appeared on the sailors’ contracts, a woman who said she was a former employee told us: “Mina Shipping is an offshore company whose owner died years ago.”
The ship’s captain told us that the owner of Mina Shipping is a man named Samir Fahel, from Tartus, Syria.
Posts shared by his family show that Mr. Fahel died in February 2023.
A former life under a different name
Fahel regularly posted pictures of ships. One in particular caught our attention: the Nadalina.
We looked up the Nadalina using its IMO number (every ship has a unique identification number issued by the International Maritime Organization). It turns out that the Nadalina is the same ship as the East Express, abandoned in Misrata.
Ship owners and operators regularly change not only their names, but also the countries in which they are registered as well as the companies that manage and own them. Industry analysts say the complex ownership structure makes it easier for ship owners and operators to walk away when a ship encounters legal or financial problems. “It’s sometimes better to abandon an asset than to retain it and have the liability for it,” says Ralby.
Tracking the ‘Nadalina’: history of sanctions violations
Ships must broadcast regular signals intended to ensure the safety of navigational traffic, and sites such as MarineTraffic pick up these signals to plot their locations. FRANCE 24 used the data – nearly 3,000 daily locations over eight years – to track the Nadalina’s movements from 2016 to 2023.
The data shows that the ship made regular trips in the Mediterranean, including to Tunisia, Libya and the Russian-managed port of Tartus in Syria and through Turkey to the Black Sea, coming and going from the Romanian port of Constanta.
It also reveals that the Nadalina made trips to the so-called “closed ports” of the Crimean Peninsula.
Ukraine banned international cargo carriers from docking at Crimean ports after Russia’s illegal annexation of the peninsula in 2014. The United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on ships visiting Crimea.
“We found a group of ships that regularly visited the closed ports in Crimea,” says Kateryna Yaresko, an online investigator with the Myrotvets Center’s Seakrime project who has extensively worked on the Nadalina question. “They were connected to a group of Romanian-Syrian businessmen based in Constanta, Romania. This group was the worst offender.”
With her team, she obtained photographs showing the Nadalina docked illegally in Crimean ports such as Sevastopol and Feodosia between 2015 and 2019, and being loaded with cargoes of scrap metal or grain.
The Ukrainian investigators reported that the Nadalina was part of a group of ships operated by a company called Bia Shipping Co.
A shipping registry in 2015 gave Bia Shipping’s contact info as addresses at “joharshipping.ro”.
While “joharshipping.ro” is no longer online, we recovered versions of the site via an internet archive. The archived site belonged to a company called Johar Shipping and listed at least five of the ships operated by Bia Shipping Company.
Both this site and another Johar Shipping Co. archived site called “johar.ro” listed a man called “Adnan Hassan” as managing director, and “Johar Hassan” as in charge of general operations.
We found Adnan Hassan’s social media accounts. One clip he shared on Facebook shows him relaxing on board an 18-metre yacht with Johar Hassan, his brother. Photos also showed him with Samir Fahel.
The families respond
We repeatedly tried to contact the companies associated with the Hassan brothers and Fahel, using all the email addresses and phone numbers that we were able to find.
A member of Fahel’s family told us that after his death, the family was still responsible for the East Express. She said a family member was assigned to manage the ship and assured us he would give an interview for our investigation. She gave us an email address that she said was for the family company Mina Shipping, but neither she nor the family responded to subsequent requests.
Adnan Hassan confirmed to us in a series of telephone interviews that he and his brother Johar had owned Johar Shipping Co. He said their company had acted as an agent for the ship on at least one occasion during the 2015 to 2019 period when it was known as the Nadalina and visited the closed ports of Crimea. He said they did not follow politics and were unaware that the Crimean ports were sanctioned, and that the visits to Crimea by the Nadalina and other ships they handled stopped after Romanian authorities investigated Johar Shipping.
The Romanian Foreign Ministry confirmed having investigated the Nadalina’s visits to Crimea. “A check was performed on the financial transactions of companies connected to this ship,” they wrote. “The competent authorities concluded that there was not enough evidence that said payments constituted breaches of the prohibition.” They said they had notified “the economic operators involved of the risks of infringing the restrictive measures on the illegal annexation of Crimea”, and that Romania “strongly condemns” Russia’s “war of aggression against Ukraine”.
Regarding the ship’s current status as the East Express and the plight of its crew in Libya, Adnan Hassan said the ship was owned by Samir Fahel and Mina Shipping. He said he was a friend of Fahel’s, but had no business relationship with him or Mina Shipping. He said the family contacted him seven months after Fahel’s death. “I wanted to be of help to his family to help them get the ship released,” he told us. “But I learned that the ship’s debts were greater than its value … I told the crew: ‘I will pay your wages only if the ship leaves the port, and I can examine it. That’s when you’ll get paid. Something to help you out.’”
Four crew members repatriated; seven remain on board
The crew told us they had received small payments from Fahel before his death but had never received their full salaries.
After FRANCE 24 contacted the ITF Seafarers union to inquire about the fate of the East Express crew, Sheikha told us the union agreed to send some money to cover his flight back to Syria. He sent us a message from the airport: “I can’t believe I’m on the way back home to my family after two years of suffering – without any savings. It’s tragic!”
As of publication, Sheikha and three of his companions have returned to Syria, while seven of their companions remain on board the ship.
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