Sailors Tell of Ordeal in Nigerian Jail

ReutersValery Pakhomov, fourth from left, and other sailors waving as they leave Sheremetyevo Airport on Wednesday.
Twelve Russian sailors freed from a Nigerian jail after nearly two years in detention arrived home on Wednesday, complaining of terrible conditions during a lengthy ordeal in the African nation that strained relations between Russia and Nigeria.

The sailors flew into Sheremetyevo Airport to an emotional welcome from their family and waiting television crews, and were handed red carnations.

The 12 Russians were among 15 sailors convicted on Dec. 14 of illegally possessing crude oil from Nigeria, but they were released as part of a plea bargain.

"The conditions were bad, of course, to say the least," said the ship's captain, Valery Pakhomov, in comments broadcast on state television.

He likened Nigerian prisons to 19th-century jails and said all the jailed crew members had repeatedly fallen ill with malaria.

Television channels showed the sailors later meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II and thanking him for interceding on their behalf.

UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Ara Abramyan, who was involved in efforts to secure the release of the sailors, said all legal problems that obstructed their return home had been solved, but that Russia might file legal claims against Nigeria, Interfax reported.

Asked about the sailors' health, Abramyan said: "They are all feeling well, but they need to undergo a rehabilitation course, including psychological rehabilitation," Interfax reported.

The captain also said the sailors would demand compensation from the ship's Greek owner, as they had not been paid their wages during the past two years.

Russian media gave prominent coverage to the plight of the sailors, and their return to Russia was the top item on all morning news broadcasts.

A Nigerian court allowed them to walk free after they pleaded guilty to reduced charges of illegal oil possession, and each received a six-month suspended sentence, earning them immediate release after having already served 23 months in pretrial custody.

The 12 Russians, two Romanians and a Georgian initially had been charged with oil smuggling and economic sabotage, which would have mandated much longer prison sentences if they had been convicted.

Nigeria's navy intercepted the sailors' Greek-owned MT African Pride in October 2003, finding the vessel laden with 11.3 metric tons of crude oil purportedly stolen from pipelines in the southern oil region.

But prolonged delays in the sailors' trial prompted Russian government protests and strains in diplomatic relations with Nigeria.

In September, the court released the sailors on bail, after diplomatic missions guaranteed they would show for their trial.

Even at the end of the ordeal, the sailors faced one last obstacle when they tried to leave the country on Dec. 20, as their visas had expired and the Nigerian authorities refused to allow them onto the plane. Only after the intervention of Russian diplomats were they able to leave, Itar-Tass reported.

Their families on Wednesday spoke of their anguish over the past two years.

"Since Oct. 8, 2003, we have been on tenterhooks, waiting, all the time in tears," Rimma Zhernakova, the mother of one of the sailors, said in comments on NTV television.