AdvanFort accused of abandoning British men facing India trial
As six British maritime security guards prepare to face trial in India charged with illegal possession of weapons, the company they were working for is accused of abandoning them. But did AdvanFort put the men at risk of being arrested by breaching international laws?
AdvanFort is an American-based anti-piracy firm that charges clients up to £60,000 a time for armed guards to escort ships across a high-risk area between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea known as Pirate Alley.
According to its website, the company formed six years ago and uses "former UK, US and Nato special forces operators" to "deter piracy" and allow "safe passage" in international waters.
In 2013, one of AdvanFort's vessels, the MV Seaman Guard Ohio, was transporting its security guards between missions when it was boarded by Indian Police and its crew arrested on suspicion of illegally possessing weapons and illegally taking on fuel.
Two years on and the men, who have spent months in Indian jails and been barred from leaving the country as legal arguments flow back and forth, claim they have been left high and dry by their employer.
The men, who each earned about £3,000 a month, have not been paid since their arrest and AdvanFort has also failed to pay any of their mounting legal costs, according to Lisa Dunn, the sister of detainee Nick Dunn.
A recent hotel bill of about £12,000 was left unpaid by the firm.
"These men are dealing with the consequences for something they haven't done," Ms Dunn said.
Her family said they were sending as much money as they could afford to help Mr Dunn, but the bills were building.
The Mission to Seafarers, a charity offering aid and advice to sailors around the world, has also been helping.
"The men have been unpaid in all of this time," said Ken Peters, director of justice and public affairs at the charity.
"We had to help them with subsistence and accommodation costs.
"We had looked to the American company to really stand by their employees which unfortunately they haven't done."
But as well as not assisting its staff, evidence has also emerged that AdvanFort put them at risk of being arrested in the first place.
Email exchanges from inside AdvanFort HQ, delivered anonymously to the BBC, indicate the company ordered an illegal delivery of fuel to the ship.
Ships wanting to refuel out at sea must use regulated sources but AdvanFort managers are accused of using a local supplier, a fisherman, contrary to the maritime regulations.
In the emails seen by the BBC, managers commanded the boat's captain to hide the fuel and the crew was ordered not to discuss the delivery.
"Put all drums in engine room," it said.
"All crew and guards not to inform the current activity happened."
The guards were merely passengers on the ship and therefore not responsible for activities aboard, according to Mr Dunn.
"Our sole responsibility on that vessel was to rest and recuperate and await further transit," he said.
Another manager at the firm did recognise the danger of such an order.
"Misleading customs and port state officials regarding a vessel's mission, mechanical condition and seaworthiness is a serious matter," he said in an email to the company's bosses, Samir Farajallah - who lives in Dubai - and his son Ahmed.
"I will not condone that type of misrepresentation myself," the concerned employee continued, adding: "Such behaviour puts our vessels and crew at risk of arrest."
Shortly afterwards the coastguard, whose attention was drawn by the fuel exchange, detained the boat and its crew.
The Indian authorities claimed the boat did not have the correct permits to sail in Indian waters with armed crew, thereby rendering the weapons illegal.
Key dates in the detention of six Britons
- 12 October 2013: Indian authorities detain the MV Seaman Guard Ohio at Tuticorin in Southern Tamil, crew of 35 - including six Britons - is arrested for carrying weapons illegally in Indian waters
- March 2014: Five of the six are granted bail but they must remain in Tuticorin having been charged with illegal weapon possession. Paul Towers remains in jail
- July 2014: The Mission of Seafarers says all charges have been dropped against the men but their passports are retained by the Indian authorities
- October 2014: Indian Police asks the country's supreme court to consider an appeal against the charges being dropped
- March 2015: Human Rights at Sea and The Mission to Seafarers issue global plea for the men to be allowed to return home as prosecutors still consider an appeal
- July 2015: Indian supreme court decides the men do have a case to answer and they must stand trial for illegal weapon possession
- September 2015: Trial due to start
AdvanFort has found itself on the wrong side of the law before.
In 2011, the firm pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the making of a false statement during the acquisition of firearms.
According to court papers, an employee bought 26 guns between April and July from a Virginia gun store in his own name.
But he had actually been paid more than $8,000 to buy them for AdvanFort, the court documents reveal.
Claiming to buy a gun for yourself but then giving it to someone else, known as "straw purchasing", is a felony in the US carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison or a $250,000 fine.
An agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told the BBC the weapons were semi-automatic rifles.
The company was fined more than $80,000 and banned from buying guns in the US until March this year.
AdvanFort's actions have been condemned by maritime union the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots.
"They [AdvanFort] knowingly and wilfully were culpable in directing the captain to violate the law of the nations they were visiting," said union chief of staff Klaus Luhta.
"Staff members advised the owner that they shouldn't be doing this and he still proceeded with the order."
The BBC travelled to Washington DC to try and speak to the Farajallahs.
The company's downtown headquarters, close to the White House, turned out just to be a mailing address but further enquiries led to an office 22 miles away in Reston, Virginia.
But these offices were empty because the firm was evicted last year for not paying rent.
During the BBC's investigation more people came forward to comment on AdvanFort.
"I'd say the company are more crooked than the pirates we are trying to stop getting on the ships," said Dave Taylor, a former employee.
"The lads out there in India, they're totally innocent, they haven't done anything wrong and the company is just letting them drift."
Other well-placed sources said the firm owed money to more than 200 employees, as well as having outstanding debts for rent, legal fees and insurance premiums.
The firm's behaviour is "reprehensible", according to Mr Luhta.
"They ship out on their bills," he said.
"I have a stack of letters in my office from people complaining this company had refused to pay them and still does refuse to pay them.
"The fact that they have abandoned these crew members in a country with no legal defence for more than two years is astonishing."
The BBC approached AdvanFort for an interview, which it declined.
In a statement it said: "Regrettably, because of the pending litigation in India and our efforts to free our crew and guards AdvanFort is unable to participate in an interview at this time."
Inside Out North East and Cumbria is broadcast on BBC One at 19:30 BST on Monday 7 September and nationwide on the iPlayer for 30 days thereafter.