Dutch shipper slams 'toxic' court case

Rotterdam (Netherlands) (AFP) - A Dutch shipping group blamed for dumping vessels with harmful waste on Turkish and Indian beaches accused prosecutors Wednesday of waging a "populist" campaign against them, based on emotive environmental issues.

In a rare case before the Dutch courts, the northern Groningen-based Seatrade group is facing criminal charges for allegedly violating European waste transfer laws.

Prosecutors are demanding fines of 750,000 euros (930,000 dollars) against three central companies that form the Seatrade group.

Three senior managers could face up to six months in jail for their roles in the breaking up of four ships in 2012.

The "Spring" vessels, which sailed from Rotterdam and Hamburg that year before being broken up in India, Turkey and Bangladesh, contained dangerous substances, including bunker oil, lubricants, chlorine and asbestos, prosecutors said.

If these substances were not removed from the four vessels before they were stripped down, then they must be treated as toxic waste, they added.

Breaking up the vessels therefore put recycling workers' health in danger and polluted the environment, the prosecution said.

Defence lawyer Hans de Jong told judges at the Rotterdam District Court the prosecution was pushing an environmental issue about the "beaching of ships", when the actual case was whether or not his clients had broken EU waste legislation.

"Beaching is allowed and it's done across the whole world, yet the prosecution is demanding jail terms," De Jong said.

He accused prosecutors of "using texts bordering on populism" about environmental issues to boost their case, rather than looking at the actual legal issues at hand.

Investigations by port police revealed that the companies planned to have the ships sailing from Rotterdam and Hamburg six years ago to be broken up on foreign beaches.

A vessel named Spring Bear apparently ran aground in 2012 at Alang beach, in India, while Spring Bob finally came ashore in Bangladesh.

Two other vessels, Spring Deli and Spring Panda, were dismantled in Turkey.

Seatrade's lawyers argued Tuesday that the matter "is not as clear-cut" as prosecutors allege.

In a complex legal argument, the defence maintained that the four ships fell outside of EU regulations once they reached their final destinations to be cut up.

"The moment they became waste ships is when they arrive at the place where they are to be recycled," and therefore the four vessels did not fall under European environmental rules, lawyer Thijs Kelder said.

"Thus, there cannot be any prosecution in The Netherlands," he argued.

Under European rules, all transfer of such waste for elimination is banned to countries such as India, Bangladesh and Turkey, prosecutors said.