By Judith Rakotovao and Riana Raymond
Fifteen Chinese nationals have been held under a detention warrant at the central prison in Toamasina since the 5th of February, 2019. Warrants have been issued for the arrest of two other individuals after their disappearance following a medical evacuation. These individuals are crew members of the Chinese ship “Flying Panama MD963051”, which was intercepted off the coast of Antalaha last December. The boat, known as ‘Ming Fen’ up until 2017, has already been involved in a case concerning the smuggling of rosewood originating in Madagascar.
According to statements made by the defendants as part of the open investigation into the Flying’s actions, the seventeen sailors work for the company LIAN HUA INTERNATIONAL TRADE L.T.D, owned by Mr Yang Jian Feng.
However, no prosecution has yet been initiated against these Chinese nationals for their alleged involvement in the smuggling of precious wood. "It is up to the Special Court of rosewood to take care of it," explained the Prosecutor of the Republic of Toamasina, Thierry Lauret Rajaona, during a private interview. Mr Rajaona, who is coordinating and leading the investigations, is refusing interviews with the media, calling upon the need to maintain confidentiality. The inquiry committee he leads is composed of gendarmes, police officers, customs officers and agents from the Maritime and Fluvial Port Agency (APMF).
In the absence of an interview, the Prosecutor confirmed the three charges against the 17 sailors, information that we had previously collected from the investigators, "The Chinese are charged with illegitimate passage, resisting arrest and failure to stop. The investigations continue and we await the trial. If you wish to know the position of the justice department, please contact our communications department”. These offenses are punishable respectively by Articles 7.5.16, 7.5.14 and 7.5.15 in Act 99.028 of Madagascar’s Maritime Code.
The boat ‘Flying’ was seized and is currently being held in the Toamasina port
A Confusing Situation
At the time of writing, the development of this investigation remains unclear and there are doubts surrounding the actors in charge of the file. As declared by their lawyer, "There is a real communication problem and a language barrier [between the authorities and Chinese detainees]. They have not understood anything, they are afraid that it is a trap. The Chinese are victims, they are just ordinary employees. They are asking for someone to contact and prosecute their employer.” Their lawyer has asked to remain anonymous due to lack of a prior authorization from the Bar which, according to him, must provide an authorisation before he is able to speak publicly as a defence attorney.
In terms of the court, no date has been given for the trial. The public prosecutor is being very discrete, given the importance and sensitivity of the case. “Prime Minister Christian Ntsay is personally supervising this case and the order comes straight from him, even if no prosecution for the rosewood has been initiated yet” a source from the joint team in charge of this investigation told us.
At Ambalatavoahangy Prison, where Chinese nationals are imprisoned, another source told us that there was a huge failure in communication between the investigators, the judiciary and the prison administration, "We didn’t know they were going to bring in these new prisoners. In addition to this we do not have the necessary information relating to this case. We have great difficulty communicating with the Chinese. They said that they are also victims of lies by the law and the police. To my knowledge, they told some prisoners that they would be transferred to a hotel, whilst others would be transferred to the hospital. This situation makes our task difficult. As you know, the Chinese have shown their dissatisfaction. On Thursday 7th February we had to resort to shooting in the air to control the situation”, our contact related.
The Chinese detainees are calling for the arrest of those in charge of their company
A political matter
According to testimonies collected in Toamasina, the fifteen imprisoned Chinese sailors find themselves between a rock and a hard place. The Public Prosecutor and governor of Toamasina’s central prison, Mr Christian Ralay, argues that they are little more than sailors on a mission who, in all likelihood, did not know the real reason for their presence in the Malagasy territorial waters. Their lawyer, provided by the Chinese association in Toamasina, agrees, saying that the detainees want their employer to be charged and are asking for the ship’s captain and the team leader to be taken into custody.
The detention conditions of Chinese sailors have also been criticized by the Federation of Women and Development Associations or FAFED. Its Project Coordinator, Maria Zafitsara, said, "It is legal and legitimate for the Malagasy authorities to defend our natural resources, but as human rights defenders we nevertheless ask that the rights of the Chinese are respected. This could cause a diplomatic incident or quite simply put the lives of the defendants in danger. Moreover, according to preliminary information, collected by our organization, there is no flagrant offense of trafficking in rosewood.”
In relation to this question of obvious illegal activity, another senior justice official told us, on condition of anonymity, that the constituent elements of an offense relating to rosewood smuggling are not actually present. After searches by the Special Forces soldiers who stopped the boat and then by the joint investigators, there is no evidence of precious wood in the holds of the ship.
"It is nevertheless very important to mention that part of the boat is welded and that the investigators have not been authorized to break it," confided a number of customs workers and national police that we met throughout the course of this investigation. No official source with access to the file has confirmed or denied this information. Having been denied access to the boat, despite our requests to the competent authorities, the investigation carried out for the purposes of this article was not able to discover in greater detail the reasons why investigators were not allowed to search the entire ship.
Some environmental activists and civil society representatives are convinced that precious wood was loaded onto the ‘Flying’. Gervais Randrianalison, Regional Coordinator of the National Coalition for Environmental Advocacy, or CNPE, for the Atsinanana region and also president of the Placaz Association, in Alaotra Mangoro, shared his concerns. "Personally, I feel that this is a political issue – all about putting on a good show. I am concerned that this boat will soon leave with wood. I’m basing my reasoning on the fact that the boat is there to recover wood that is ready to ship. I think there are accomplices even within the state itself.”
Last December the environmental civil society organization Alliance Voahary Gasy (AVG) obtained a special permit from the Ministry of the Environment to visit the ship. Its envoys have found no trace of wood on board. "However, there is information that we should check about any timber that may have been on board before the boat was stopped,” its president, Ndranto Razakamanarina, informed us over the phone. “Before the military intervened, the crew members may have thrown them into the sea."
Rosewood stocks at the office for the Regional Department for the Environment and Sustainable Development in Toamasina
Corruption and Lack of Transparency
For the moment, the Malagasy authorities are remaining silent about the development of investigations into the ‘Flying’. The case was last mentioned on 19th December, during a press conference on the assault on and interception of the boat, attended by the then Prime Minister, Minister of Defence and the Secretary General in charge of the gendarmerie. We have observed this lack of transparency during our field investigations in Toamasina and Antananarivo. Our requests for access to investigators and to the Flying vessel, made in the name of freedom of information have been refused both by the National Gendarmerie and the Public Prosecutor. Both pray in aid of the respect for confidentiality of investigations and the secrecy of instruction.
In Toamasina, the Chinese detainees are playing the role of "scapegoats". According to our sources, the brain behind this operation is a woman named Rita Sun Tung Lock, who officially declared 3375 logs of stocks in 2011 to the SAVA region authorities. Mrs. Sun Tung Lock is an economic operator based in Antalaha. She is assisted in her rosewood smuggling business by a certain "Fre" whose real name is unknown to our sources. However, according to our research, a man named Fréderic N. has already been the subject of an investigation by the National Gendarmerie of SAVA in 2017, according to PV N ° 15-GAPJ / SAVA of 13 February 2017 relating to the arrest of: FREDERIC N., JR, RC and JH, for illegal transport of rosewood and complicity. At the time, these four individuals were being held under warrant in Antalaha’s main prison. The transport of precious woods was then undertaken by two boat owners: Mr. Olivier, owner of Ulrich, and Patrick Maly, owner of Meva.
"Despite this information, for various reasons, no lawsuit has yet been issued against these individuals by the Malagasy authorities," our contacts have complained. Toamasina’s public prosecutor, Thierry Lauret Rajaona, also said a few words on the existence of local accomplices, during our private interview, without providing details.
For several weeks the new regime has been conducting arrests and hearings of several of the former employees of former president Rajaonarimampianina such as Mbola Rajaonah and the former Minister for the Environment Anthelme Ramparany. The aforementioned individuals would have had direct responsibility for the ‘Flying’ case, according to the daily newspaper Midi Madagasikara on February 14th. The newspaper says the Chinese detainees reportedly mentioned Mbola Rajaonah during their hearings. Five days after his arrest and incarceration in Tsiafahy, the independent anti-corruption bureau (BIANCO) announced that the file would soon be closed. Finally, whether the timing was a coincidence or not, the spectacular arrest of Jean Eddy Maminirina on charges of exploitation, transport, detention and trade of rosewood on February 12th last week is not dissimilar to the case of smuggling of precious woods in which the ‘Flying’ was implicated in 2015, while it still went under the name of Min Feng.
This English translation has been possible thanks to the PerMondo project: Free translation of website and documents for non-profit organisations. A project managed by Mondo Agit. Translator: Sarah Hill. Proofreader: Nicole Crosbourne.