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Court extends detention of Iranian tanker for a month

Johnny Bugeja

Gibraltar’s Supreme Court has granted a further 30-day extension for authorities to detain the supertanker Grace 1, which was seized earlier this month on suspicion it was carrying Iranian crude oil bound for Syria in breach of EU sanctions.

Attorney General Michael Llamas, QC, said the detention order had been extended and a fresh court hearing set for August 15 following a short appearance in private on Friday morning in front of Chief Justice Anthony Dudley.

The development came two days after Chief Minister Fabian Picardo held talks with Iranian officials in London to try and defuse tensions following the seizure of the vessel.

The meeting was held in the Foreign Office in London and was described by a Gibraltar Government spokesman as “constructive and positive”, although few other details of the discussions have emerged.

But addressing the Gibraltar Parliament on Friday morning, Mr Picardo again underlined the bid to de-escalate the friction surrounding the case, while ensuring Gibraltar's legal process was properly allowed to run its course.
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At every stage [of the meeting with Iran] we emphasised the distinct nature of Gibraltar’s jurisdiction and the independence of the Supreme Court of Gibraltar as well as the importance of the due process of law being followed in a state governed by the rule of law," the Chief Minister said.

"We look forward to continuing to work constructively and positively with officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran to facilitate the release of the Grace 1 pursuant to the satisfaction of all legal requirements."
Iran has repeatedly called for the ship's release, denies the allegation that the tanker was taking oil to Syria in violation of sanctions and says Gibraltar and Britain seized the vessel on the orders of Washington.
Gibraltar in turn denies it was ordered to detain the vessel, which was carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil and was seized by Gibraltar law enforcement agencies supported by Royal Marines.
But several diplomatic sources told Reuters the United States asked the United Kingdom to seize the vessel.
The vessel is now seen as a pawn in the standoff between the Islamic Republic and the West, with its fate tangled in the diplomatic differences between the EU's big powers and the United States.
"This tanker is important because it is part of the wider tensions between Iran and the United States," said Sanam Vakil, senior research fellow at Chatham House in London.
"The EU 3 – including the UK – are caught in between, trying to save the Iran nuclear deal while also managing pressure from Washington," she said, referring to Germany, France and Britain.
"So there is a big divergence of strategy on how to proceed and this tanker is a reflection of those divergences."
Iranian hardliners have repeatedly threatened to seize British shipping in retaliation for what they cast as London's piracy and Britain last week said it had fended off Iranian ships that tried to block a British tanker.
But Britain, which wants to preserve the nuclear deal, has repeatedly indicated it wants a compromise over the tanker.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Britain "would facilitate release" of the Iranian supertanker "if we received guarantees that it would not be going to Syria, following due process" in Gibraltar courts.
Earlier this week, Mr Picardo also met with Prime Minister Theresa May to discuss the situation with the oil tanker, as well as issues relating to Brexit.

A Number 10 spokesman said at the time: "The Prime Minister stressed the importance of Gibraltar's independent legal process being followed and paid tribute to their efforts to implement EU Syria sanctions."
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Mr Picardo thanked Mrs May for "her support in allowing the Royal Marines to carry out the operation".

The ship's captain, chief officer and two second officers were arrested last week and bailed without charge while the investigation is ongoing.
Under Gibraltar law, the authorities can detain the vessel for a maximum of 90 days, but will need to seek extensions from the court periodically.
The legal process in the court could be further complicated by a private action launched this week by an Israeli activist group reportedly linked to the country's feared Mossad intelligence.
Shurat HaDin on Tuesday lodged a claim in Gibraltar's Supreme Court in a bid to seize the supertanker Grace 1 and sell it to compensate victims of terrorism.

The group is asking the court to enforce a 2017 default judgement from the US District Court of Columbia making the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security, and the Syrian Arab Republic liable for compensation totalling $178,500,000.
Lawyers from Massias & Partners filed a claim against Iran in the Supreme Court in Gibraltar on Tuesday, seeking just under £150m and asking the court to enforce the US order and seize the Iranian tanker.