Gibraltar Supreme Court says Iranian tanker is free to sail
The ruling to release the vessel that was commandeered by the UK came despite a last-minute US attempt to detain it.
By AL JAZEERA, NEWS AGENCIES
Gibraltar’s Supreme Court has ruled an Iranian oil tanker is free to sail, just hours after the United States had made a last minute application “to seize” the vessel, authorities said.
Grace 1 had been commandeered by the British Royal Marines off the coast of Gibraltar on July 4 on suspicion it was carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Iran had denied the accusation and called the seizure “an act of piracy” committed at the behest of the US.
The tanker has since become a pawn in the escalating tensions between Iran and the US.
Chief Justice Anthony Dudley said that since Iran had guaranteed in writing that the Grace 1 “was never destined to an EU sanctioned entity … there are no longer reasonable grounds to suspect that the detention of the Vessel is required.”
He added that the court had not received an official detention request from the US.
The Supreme Court of the British territory said it had received assurance that the ship would not discharge its cargo of $21m worth of light crude oil in Syria.
“As far as the judge here is concerned at the Supreme Court, the Grace 1 is free to leave right now,” Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from Gibraltar, said.
The decision came after a day of confusion surrounding the tanker, with the government in Gibraltar saying plans to release the vessel on Thursday had been delayed by the last-minute request from the US Department of Justice to seize it.
But the US appeal was not considered official by the Supreme Court, Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said.
The US request could still be reviewed by the territory’s Independent Mutual Legal Assistance authority, who can decide whether a separate court case can take place, Picardo told reporters.
However, as of Thursday afternoon, the tanker head been officially released.
It remained unclear if the decision would prompt Iran to release the British-flagged Stena Impero, which the Islamic Republic had seized in the Strait of Hormuz in July, in apparent retaliation for the seizure of Grace 1.
A spokesman for the Steno Impero’s owner said after the ruling that the situation remained unchanged and that the company awaited further developments from the UK and Iran.
“Now this is a way for both sides to defuse the situation and save face,” Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig, reporting from Tehran, said.
The US and Iran have traded barbs and accusations as tensions have risen over the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway between Oman and Iran through which a fifth of the world’s oil is transported.
Since May, the US has repeatedly accused Iran of sabotaging tankers in the strait. An accusation Iran has denied.
In June, Iran downed a US military surveillance drone in the Gulf with a surface-to-air missile. Iran claimed the drone was in its airspace, while Washington says it was in international skies.
The US military has since deployed additional forces, including an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers, to the Middle East as tensions have mounted. It also began a joint naval mission in the region with the UK, who were prompted to join by the seizure of the Steno Impero.
On Thursday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif derided Washington’s last minute attempt to seize the tanker, accusing the US of trying to “steal our property on the high seas”.
“Having failed to accomplish its objectives through its #EconomicTerrorism —including depriving cancer patients of medicine — the US attempted to abuse the legal system to steal our property on the high seas,” Zarif Tweeted on Thursday, referring to US sanctions that Iranian officials say have prevented cancer patients from receiving medicine.
He added: “This piracy attempt is indicative of Trump (administration’s) contempt for the law.”
The vessel remained docked off the coast of the Gibraltar after the Supreme Court’s ruling. It was not immediately clear if there was a crew willing and able to man the ship. In preparations for the tanker’s release, the captain of Grace 1, an Indian national, and three officers had been released from detention on Thursday, the government said.