CANADA

Reluctant witnesses

Key players in the stowaway murder case decline to testify

MERLE MacISAAC September 16 1996
CANADA

Reluctant witnesses

Key players in the stowaway murder case decline to testify

MERLE MacISAAC September 16 1996

Reluctant witnesses

CANADA

Key players in the stowaway murder case decline to testify

Standing in a friend’s backyard in Halifax, Esmeraldo Esteban broke down and sobbed into his handkerchief. The former quartermaster on the container ship Maersk Dubai was telling reporters last week of threats that his family in the Philippines had received since he and three fellow Philippine crew members told Canadian authorities in May of seeing Taiwanese officers dump three Romanian stowaways overboard on the high seas. Esteban, 41, said that after his family’s pet dog was run over, an anonymous caller told his wife: “The dog was just an example of what is going to happen to the rest of you if your husband testifies.” Waving snapshots of his wife and three young children, Esteban shouted at the journalists: “How could you risk those children? Tell me! Anybody who could answer me!”

It was just one more bizarre scene in a case already steeped in intrigue. After the Taiwanese-owned Dubai docked in Halifax on May 27, the Filipinos told a wrenching tale of Romanian stowaways begging for their lives before being cast adrift. Acting on behalf of the Romanian government, which has an extradition treaty with Canada, the RCMP stormed the Dubai and arrested the seven officers, charging them with firstdegree murder. An extradition hearing, which began in Halifax last week, must decide if there is sufficient evidence to justify a trial. If so, the Romanian government is requesting that the officers be sent to Romania to face the charges. At the same time, the Taiwanese government—which Ottawa

does not formally recognize—is insisting that the accused be returned to their homeland where the matter would then be investigated and dealt with. The final decision is up to federal Justice Minister Allan Rock, who may accept or ignore the hearing’s findings.

But those hearings got off to a rocky start when Rodolfo Miguel, the first of the Philippine crew members to be called to testify, refused to be sworn in. “It’s not that I don’t want to testify,” Miguel told Nova Scotia Supreme

Court Justice Michael MacDonald. “I just want everyone to know my family is under death threats back home.” Outside the court, Miguel showed reporters what appeared to be a copy of a report by police in Manila describing a failed attempt by three men to force his wife into a car in mid-August. The report also stated that Miguel’s 11-year-old daughter had been followed by two men.

Giving Miguel time to reconsider, MacDonald ordered him to return to court this week. But late last week, Miguel still appeared willing to risk being cited for contempt of court for refusing to testify unless his wife and five children are brought to Canada. “If protecting your family is illegal,” he told reporters, “I’ll go to jail then.”

The other Philippine crew members, crucial witnesses all, followed suit. Their refusal to testify left Justice officials scrambling, and many tongues wagging. Families and lawyers of the accused Taiwanese officers said that the deadlock amounted to little more than a ploy by the crewmen to advance their overriding interest: their refugee claims. All four Filipinos are seeking refugee status in Canada, claims they insist stem exclusively from the threat posed to them because of their misfortune in witnessing events on the Dubai.

Even if they ultimately secure the testimony of the Filipino witnesses, federal lawyers face some daunting challenges. Defence lawyers plan to argue that the judge cannot grant Romania’s extradition request because Taiwanese ship captain Cheng Shiou and his officers—who are currently free on bail—cannot be classified “fugitives from Romanian justice.” The alleged murders took place off the coast of Spain, on a vessel sailing under a Taiwanese flag. Said one lawyer close to the proceedings: “Any international law I’m aware off says that vessel is a little piece of Taiwan.”

Taiwan is intensely interested in the matter for several reasons, not least of which is the stark prospect of seven Taiwanese nationals being shipped off to face a dubious system of justice in Romania. Then, there is the Taiwanese government’s direct ownership stake in Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp., which owns the Maersk Dubai. (Yang Ming is now the subject of a lawsuit by the families of two of the alleged Romanian victims.) Finally, the arrests cast an unwelcome spotlight on Taiwan’s tenuous status in the international diplomatic community.

Following the Philippine resistance last week, federal lawyer James Martin called three surviving Romanian stowaways who gave evidence that they saw two of the alleged victims board the Dubai in Algeciras, Spain, during two separate voyages in March and May, and that the men later disappeared. One of the witnesses, Nicolae Pasca, 23, also recalled being discovered by a Philippine crewman in May and warned to get back into hiding. “He looked around,” said Pasca, “and told me that ‘the Chinese would cut your throat’ ” if they caught him.

The Romanian witnesses added another layer of irony to the already unusual proceedings. Like the three missing stowaways, each of them wanted one thing— refuge in Canada. And they risked their lives in desperate attempts to crawl aboard any vessel that might deliver them. But on this day, at least, they found the groomed and gowned government lawyers in their promised land earnestly acting on behalf of the state they had tried so hard to flee.

MERLE MacISAAC in Halifax

MERLE MacISAAC