Four Crewmembers Remain on Hijacked Freighter in Mediterranean

Kraznozhtan has written half a dozen petitions, including one to Russia President Dmitry Medvedev. "We can say with certainty that four seamen are being forced to wait it out against their will on the Arctic Sea," he says. "That satisfies the legal definition of enslavement."

The other crewmembers haven't fared much better. Sergei Petruk, the ship's machinist, recently paid a visit to Kraznozhtan. He is one of the 11 crewmembers who have now returned home -- though only after a stopover in Lefortovo Prison, the infamous Soviet-era KGB prison in Moscow. Petruk is sitting with his wife, Oxana, in a café across the street from the municipal swimming pool in Arkhangelsk. His right hand is swollen. "The terrorists broke my hand with a rifle butt," he explains.

Smoke & Dirty Mirrors

Petruk would never have thought it possible that his crew could run into pirates in the Baltic Sea. "They were wearing black masks and jackets with 'polis' -- the Swedish word for police -- written on them," he recalls. "But I quickly realized that they weren't real police officers." The weapons the men were carrying were too shabby and worn to be used by the coast guard of a Western country, Petruk reasoned -- and they were Kalashnikovs.

Besides, Petruk adds, the kidnappers spoke Russian when they contacted their accomplices in Moscow via radio. The hijackers were apparently on the lookout for a ship that was supposed to pick them up. But it never showed up.

A mysterious web of companies is associated with the Arctic Sea. Only 500 meters from the office of the seamen's union, a company called Solchart Arkhangelsk Ltd. has leased three rooms. It was from here that it hired the freighter's crew.

The owner of the shipping company is Viktor Matveyev, a Russian, and its parent company, Solchart Management AB, has its headquarters in Helsinki. The freighter itself is owned by Arctic Sea Ltd., which is registered in the Maltese capital Valletta. That city is home to a number of companies of questionable repute, such as Better Win 24 Ltd., which attracted attention in Germany with its spamming calls touting hugely profitable lotteries.

The seamen's union was suspicious of Solchart's claim that it had "only been actively engaged as a shipping company for a short time." However, Arctic Sea Ltd. has been conducting transactions in Malta since 2005, such as selling shares to Panama. To make things even more confusing, Aquaship, a company based in the Latvian capital Riga, was still considered the owner of the Arctic Sea until late 2008, when Solchart acquired the freighter and four sister ships. Likewise, Aquaship listed these ships on its Web site as part of its own fleet until the end of July.

"In our industry," Kraznozhtan says, "it's not unusual to see ships being operated by front men. The real owners do not identify themselves."

An Ongoing Odyssey

His colleague Alexander Ageyev is an expert on Russia's highly corrupt shipping industry. He sees the jealousy of a competitor behind the hijacking of the Arctic Sea. Of course, he might be right, and the incident could have been resulted from a simple dispute in a semi-criminal milieu. But that wouldn't explain why the Russia's navy was deployed and why investigators have behaved so strangely.

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