Jail for stowaways who wreaked havoc on container vessel

Four stowaways have been jailed after they ran amok on a massive container vessel as it navigated the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

The men, from Nigeria and Liberia, waved metal poles and lobbed faeces and urine after they were discovered hiding aboard the 78,000 tonne Grande Tema in December 2018.

When the ship reached the Thames Estuary bound for Tilbury docks, they demanded to be dropped off in Britain.

Two of the men made cut-throat gestures at the crew who had barricaded themselves on the bridge behind bullet proof glass.

Following a 14-hour standoff, special forces swooped on the ship under cover of darkness to rescue the sailors.

The Grande Tema ship (CPS/PA)
The Grande Tema ship (CPS/PA)

Following an Old Bailey trial, Samuel Jolumi, 27, Ishola Sunday, 28, Toheeb Popoola, 27, and Joberto McGee, 21, were cleared of attempting to hijack the ship but convicted of affray.

Popoola was found guilty of making a threat to kill while McGee was convicted on two similar offences.

In mitigation, it was claimed Popoola had acted out of “desperation” and now regretted his behaviour as he awaited the outcome of his asylum application.

It was said on behalf of McGee that he had fled West Africa in search a safer country and to avoid being forced to join a “tribal gang”.

The court heard Popoola and McGee has been stowaways before and been sent back to Nigeria each time.

By contrast, Sunday, a married father of two, had made an “impulsive decision” to hide aboard the ship and “wants nothing other than to go home and rebuild his life”, the court was told.

Judge Nigel Lickley QC sentenced ringleader McGee to 32 months in jail telling him: “Your behaviour was at times menacing and threatening.”

Popoola was jailed for 31 months and the two co-defendants were handed jail terms of 16 months.

Judge Lickley said it was an “unusual case”, the like of which he had never come across in his professional life before.

He told the defendants: “The crew were intimidated, fearful and some feared for their lives at times.

“The English Channel is a busy sea lane and it was disrupted by your activity.“

The judge praised the “fortitude and good sense” of the ship’s Italian captain, Antonio Raggi, in the face of violence and possible death.

During the trial, prosecutor Tony Badenoch QC had told how the men had secretly boarded the Grimaldi Group ship in Lagos, Nigeria, before it set off on its trading route to Tilbury in Essex.

The captain found them on the lower deck ramp close to where the propellers are, with two hanging over the rails in dangerous waters, jurors were told.

The men were given food and water and placed into quarantine but broke out five days later and demanded to be taken to Britain.

Mr Badenoch said: “In order to reinforce these demands the defendants armed themselves with metal poles, they threw urine and faeces, and in at least one defendant’s cases, they cut themselves.”

They were filmed by the crew making cut-throat gestures and waving bottles of urine.

The court was also shown footage of the stowaways armed with metal poles, with one appearing to square up in a boxing pose.

The incident was reported to British authorities and the ship was held off-shore in UK waters, unable to dock, as the stalemate continued.

Thames Estuary stowaways
A view of the Grimaldi Lines’ Grande Tema docked at the Port of Tilbury (Gareth Fuller/PA)

In the middle of the night, special forces descended on the ship and detained the stowaways, jurors were told.

Giving evidence, Capt Raggi told jurors of his fears for the safety of his 27-strong crew.

He said: “For me, these guys could be terrorists, Boko Haram, I don’t know.

“They come on board, they break the safety, the security of the vessel.

“My problem is if these guys have put something in a part of the vessel and after are going to come and get weapons.”

During the trial, jurors visited the 232m long ship at Tilbury docks which was said to be heavier than the UK’s largest aircraft carrier, and only slightly shorter in length than the Palace of Westminster.

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