The captain and the crew of Panama-flagged bulk carrier MV Top Grace have pleaded guilty before the Durban Magistrates Court to the attempted murder of two stowaways in late March.

The captain of the ship also pleaded guilty to endangering life or causing injury and failure to report stowaways.

The ship left the Port of Durban on March 26 and on the following day the crew found two unknown men of Tanzanian origin on board the ship who demanded to know the ship’s destination.

According to the plea, the two men were confined into a room after refusing to wear face masks and protective gear amid the crew’s fears that they might be infected with the coronavirus.

The crew members then built a raft and ordered the two stowaways in a threatening manner to go into the raft and leave the ship. The men were given lifejackets and water. The ship pulled away once they were onboard.

The Tanzanians claimed they spent two days at sea before washing out at Zinkwazi beach on the North Coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Once informed of the incident, the authorities detained the ship in Richards Bay, where it remains berthed.

Seven crew including the ship’s master were taken into police custody and charged with attempted murder before being released on bail.

“The accused admitted that their actions could have resulted in serious injury and even loss of life to the men,” the National Prosecuting Authority of South Africa said.

The court sentenced the captain to a total of 5 years and three months of prison or R 160,000 fine ($ 8.449) for the attempt of murder and failing to report stowaways. The sentence was suspended for five years under the condition that he is not convicted of the same offense during the suspension.

Each of the six crew members, all of Chinese nationality, were fined R50,000 ($2,640) or two years of imprisonment for the attempted murderers.

The prosecution said that the men were handed over to immigration officials after paying their fines.

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