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A vessel brought to India basis a false distress alert - can it be subject to customs duty?

Updated: May 23, 2022

Can the authorities impose customs duty or confiscate a foreign vessel and its goods if the only reason the vessel was in the country (India in this case) was because the coast guard brought her there for safety following a distress alert that later turned out to be fake? A Court in India had to deal with this novel question in The Al Thriaya-3 [2022].

The Indian crew of the UAE flagged fishing vessel brought her close to Indian territorial waters and then sent a distress call to which the Indian Coast Guard responded and brought her to Kochi port. Crew initially said that they were being subjected to mistreatment and were being compelled to work without wages. Investigations revealed that the distress call was a ploy adopted by the crew possibly to create a passage for themselves back to the Country. The Custom Authorities seized the vessel which they deemed to have been brought to India illegally. The owner wanted the vessel freed without any custom duties being imposed.


The main question for the Court was whether there was an act of ‘import’ as contemplated under the Customs Act? The Court first said that under UNCLOS and SOLAS, India had a duty to respond to such a distress alert notwithstanding that subsequent investigations may reveal that the alert was false. Here the vessel or its goods had not been used or put to any use in India for any purpose and therefore cannot be considered as ‘import’ under the Customs Act. Also, a vessel had entering Indian territorial waters at the behest of the coast guard cannot be termed as an ‘import’ either. The vessel and her goods were deemed to be ‘in transit’ and not liable to be imposed with customs duty or subjected to confiscation.


Link to court judgement - https://indiankanoon.org/doc/41137474/



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