Frontline World

SPAIN - The Lawless Sea, January 2004


Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Lawless Sea"

HIDING BEHIND THE FLAG
Interactive Atlas

INTERVIEW WITH MARK SCHAPIRO
Troubled Waters

THE PAPER TRAIL
The Case of the Prestige

LINKS & RESOURCES
Regulation, the Environment, Labor

MAP

REACT TO THIS STORY

   

Hiding Behind The Flag
Intro Belize Bahamas Panama Tonga Liberia

TONGA: Closed for Security Concerns

Tonga's 171 islands are located in the South Pacific, between Australia and Fiji, and ruled by King Taufa'ahua Tupou IV. Tonga has sold passports for as much as US$60,000, and it seriously considered accepting U.S. toxic waste. In 2000, despite the small island nation's inability to monitor ships around the world -- Tonga's navy has only three coast guard vessels and one royal yacht -- Tonga opened a ship registry, headquartered in Piraeus, Greece. More than 180 ships signed up under the Tongan flag before the registry closed in 2002.

According to press reports, U.S. naval intelligence officials believed that several Tongan ships were part of Osama bin Laden's "navy." Suspicion heightened in January 2002 when Israeli commandos boarded a Tongan-flagged ship called the Karine A and found 50 tons of weapons on board. Two more Tongan vessels, the Sara and the Twillinger, were caught later that year with illegal Pakistani immigrants on board carrying large quantities of cash, maps and false passports. Reports claimed U.S. officials suspected that the men, the Sara and the Twillinger were linked to al Qaeda, though the specific nature of the connection was never revealed. Following the Twillinger incident, Tonga's registry suspended operation indefinitely, and soon the Tongan cabinet announced that the registry was officially closed, citing "diplomatic, financial, business and legal considerations," including "international terrorism and an increase in people smuggling." Ships already registered under the Tongan flag were given 12 months to make "alternative arrangements." Efforts by FRONTLINE/World to reach a Tongan official for comment on the brief history of the Tonga International Registry of Ships were unsuccessful.

PERKS OF THE FLAG

The Tongan registry appeared willing to accept almost any ship, regardless of age, owners or activity. The average age of ships in the Tongan fleet jumped from 23 to 31 years in the two years it operated.

WHAT THE REGULATORS SAY

Europe's most respected ship regulation agencies blacklisted Tonga in 2001 and gave it a "high risk" rating, thereby indicating that ships flying the Tongan flag were likely to be violating international shipping safety, labor or environmental regulations. Of 30 Tongan ships inspected in 2001 by port authorities in Europe and North America, 10 were considered to be unfit to return to sea until problems found on board were rectified.

A MEMBER OF THE FLEET: The Sara

In August 2002, Italian marine authorities received an SOS from the captain of the Sara, who claimed 15 men brought aboard in Casablanca were threatening him and his crew. According to press reports printed at the time, the captain stated that he had been "forced" to take the men aboard by the ship's owners, a company called Nova, which, according to U.S. and Italian intelligence sources, had a long history of smuggling illegal immigrants. U.S. officials suspected that both the Sara and the men discovered on board were linked to al Qaeda. Other ships owned by Nova include the Twillinger and the Tara, both of which were flagged in Tonga and suspected of being part of the al Qaeda navy.

• Introduction
• Belize: Where Have All the Fish Pirates Gone?
• Bahamas: Cruising a Sea of Labor Complaints
• Panama: Home of "Convenience"
• Tonga: Closed for Security Concerns
• Liberia: Ruling the Waves From Virginia

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