Life terms for stowaway massacre

Killing of eight Africans is brought to light by a survivor who hid in ship's hold
The Ukrainian captain of a cargo ship and his second-in-command were sentenced to life imprisonment in the French city of Rouen yesterday for killing eight African stowaways at sea off Portugal in November 1992.

Three other Ukrainian crew members of the vessel, the MC Ruby, were jailed for 20 years for their part in a tale of savagery on the high seas.

The court heard that seven Ghanaians and one Cameroonian who hid aboard the ship were beaten with an iron bar, shot and dumped in the Atlantic Ocean. The killings only came to light because one Ghanaian stowaway, Kingsley Ofusu, escaped the massacre and hid in the hold of the vessel, drinking his own urine to survive. The crew knew he was on board, and stalked him for three days, but he evaded them and slipped ashore when the MC Ruby docked in Le Havre, where he alerted the police. He took a handful of cocoa beans from the hold to support his account.

As the story unfolded in court, it raised worrying questions over how often such incidents might occur at sea. The 23-member Ukrainian crew were envied at home, since they were paid in hard currency. But they knew they faced heavy fines if they arrived with undocumented passengers at their next port of call.

What happened after the stowaways, crazed with thirst, came out on deck to search for water, prompted the prosecutor to describe the captain, 60-year-old Vladimir Ilnitskiy, as a man "who forbade nothing, a Pontius Pilate who seeks refuge in false innocence".

The stowaways, seeking to escape desperate poverty at home, slipped on board the MC Ruby, registered in the Bahamas, when it docked at the Ghanaian port of Takoradi, on its way to Hamburg. But weakened by more than a week without water, some risked giving themselves up, a decision which condemned all but one of them to a brutal of death. The rest were caught and locked up, then led out one by one to be killed.

It emerged that the strongest personality on board was the first mate, Valery Artemenko, also sentenced to life. None of the accused denied the murders, but according to the men with him in the dock, Artemenko was the ringleader.

Last month he attempted to commit suicide in his cell, but was pulled down by two cellmates after trying to hang himself from a window with a tracksuit. He was not seriously hurt.

The three crew members, Oleg Mikhailevsky, Petr Bondarenko and Sergei Romashenko, were jailed for 20 years for kidnapping, murder and attempted murder.

The jury acquitted a sixth defendant, Dzhamal Arakhamiya, from the separatist Georgian region of Abkhazia, who was accused of complicity in the crimes. He said he had refused to participate in the murders.