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|November 12, 1998||
Malta boat tragedy victims' kin set out to seek justice on their own
Irked over the ''apathetic attitude'' of foreign governments, weary relatives of the Malta boat tragedy victims, who have waited for justice for two years, have instituted a private mission to track down the offenders responsible for the death of 350 people, mostly Indians, on the high seas.
Unmindful of the arduous task ahead, a four-member mission left for Greece today.
The private investigation team, the first of its kind, is led by former Punjab Janata Dal president Balwant Singh Khera. The team would try to locate the ship owner, those who hired it and the people involved in trafficking of human beings.
The boat carrying Indians, mostly youth from Punjab, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, sank on the high seas across Malta. The tragedy came to light on December 25 ,1996. Only a few survived to narrate the harrowing tale.
The boat that sank because of being overloaded was arranged by agents to clandestinely transport young men seeking employment, to other countries, Khera said.
He said his team had secured clearance from the government as well as official instructions to Indian missions abroad for extending ''all assistance to the people's fact-finding mission.''
Capt Vikram Singh, who is chairman of the Bharatiya Janata Party ex-servicemen's cell, said he would be coordinating from New Delhi with the team conducting the investigation abroad.
He said the team would visit Switzerland, Italy and Malta. In Switzerland, the team would meet officials of the International Human Rights Commission, and had already contacted the marine investigations bureau of the United States to seek technical help.
They also plan to sit on a one-day token fast in front of the commission headquarters and at the Vatican.
Capt Vikram Singh, who is managing director of a Delhi-based organisation of private detectives, said they had already retained reputed private detectives in Greece, Italy and Malta for undertaking the investigations.
The BJP leader said they took this step because none of the foreign governments had taken any action against the persons involved in illegal human trade. These governments did not even register a police case in this regard, he said.
The Malta Boat Tragedy Sufferers Association, under whose banner the parents of victims assembled, said as many as 80 victims were from Hoshiarpur district in Punjab.
Narrating the tragic event as told by the few survivors from Punjab, Khera said in a statement that 180 young men from India and the others from Pakistan and Sri Lanka were taken in groups from Alexanderia (Egypt) and Istanbul (Turkey) by air and then put on a boat. On the fateful night of December 24, 1996, the over-crowded boat carrying around 400 passengers was accidentally hit by another boat and developed cracks. The passengers were left with no choice but to leave the sinking boat by jumping into the icy waters of the sea without life jackets. In fact, there were no life jackets on the boat. Only 40 young men managed to survive.
Capt Vikram Singh said the governments concerned did not help in searching for the bodies and the wreckage of the boat had not been located to date.
Expressing dissatisfaction over what he called 'tardy progress' of investigation into the tragedy, which was entrusted to the Central Bureau of Investigation by the Indian government, Capt Vikram Singh, who was instrumental in organising the victims' parents said only one Delhi-based travel agent was arrested in the case. But he too secured release on bail.
The victims parents who had earlier staged several demonstrations in Punjab and Delhi demanding action against ''those involved in human trade'', said they had paid from Rs 2-300,000 to travel agents for sending their wards abroad for employment. Khera said some of the parents sold their land to pay ''unscrupulous travel agents'' selling dreams of greener pastures abroad.
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