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Ukrainian master gets his day in court

VLADIMIR Ustimenko, the Ukrainian master who has been held in Venezuela since August 2007 on suspicion of drug trafficking, is finally to have his day in court. After a marathon 575 days in captivity, the 59-year old master is to speak in front of a Venezuelan judge on Tuesday 10 March. The trial of two Ukrainian seafarers began last week with prosecution and defence lawyers outlining the details of a case that has highlighted problems facing shipowners and crew calling in Venezuelan ports. Mr Ustimenko and his first officer, Yuri Datchenko, were arrested along with the 38,056 dwt bulker B Atlantic on August 12, 2007 when Venezuelan divers found 128 kilos of cocaine clamped to the ship’s hull while it was moored in Lake Maracaibo. Mr Datchenko will also speak at the court hearing. From the apartment in Maracaibo, where he is being guarded by Venezuelan National Guard, Mr Ustimenko told Lloyd’s List that he and Mr Datchenko were optimistic that their nightmare was finally coming to an end. Lawyers will sum up on Tuesday or Wednesday and the judge is expected to deliver his decision within one or two months, he said. “We asked our lawyers and they answered that it’s dependant on the judge’s decision: how many court hearings to be done, how long to wait between court hearings, how much evidence at the court hearing. It may take from one to two months,” said Mr Ustimenko. The B Atlantic is not an isolated case. Other seafarers have been detained caught up in a world of illegal drug dealers and a slow-moving justice system. Two Greek officers, master Georgios Koutikas and first officer Athanasios Ntoustsias, are also being held after 98 kg of cocaine and 2 kg of heroin were found in similar circumstances to the B Atlantic. The drugs were clamped to the hull of the Astro Saturn, a 2003-built tanker managed by Kristen Navi, part of the Athens-based Angelicoussis Shipping Group.

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