Phocea was boarded in Vanuatu earlier this month by local police, and at least two of four people initially arrested are still being held. Police state they suspect the superyacht of being involved in gun smuggling, money laundering, and breaching maritime borders.
Police have confirmed to local media that customs, immigration, and quarantine officers were involved in the boarding operation, which took place on July 22.
The 75m (246ft) Phocea was in Port Vila Harbour, but not at the dock, and she was not seized nor taken to the dock by officials. Two men, a woman, and Phocea’s captain were, however, taken into custody.
The acting police commissioner initially told local media that the alleged crimes were connected to a cabinet minister and other local political leaders. However, he did not provide names or any other details.
Later, the Vanuatu Police Media Unit provided information about the high-powered arms, money laundering, and breaching maritime borders.
“A court warrant was issued and a search was conducted and numerous documents in relation to bilateral arrangement and the forging of signatures on official documents were confiscated,” says a statement from the same unit. “Onboard the yacht were 16 crew members, including the captain and a Samoan and Tongan, who were involved in a Vanuatu citizenship controversy in March.”
The police added that individuals aboard Phocea were arrested in Thailand earlier this year for arms smuggling, though they were not identified.
The captain of Phocea, the Samoan and Tongan, and the unidentified woman appeared in court last week. According to an article published this week in the French newspaper Le Figaro, the captain was released on bail, and two others were indicted on a number of charges. The paper reports that those individuals are the same ones tied to the arms-smuggling case in Thailand.
As for the Vanuatu charges, they include arms trafficking, forgery, and issuing forged documents, along with other immigration-law violations.
Phocea’s owner has ties to Vanuatu. He’s Anh Quan Saken, a Thai native who became a Vanuatu citizen earlier this year. Police say the superyacht was registered in Vanuatu in 2005 as a diplomatic yacht belonging to him.
Recently, he had been nominated as the honorary consul of Vanuatu in Vietnam. He has not been confirmed for the post, however.
The situation surrounding Phocea is stirring up political controversy, too. The head of Vanuatu’s opposition is calling for the prime minister to resign, since he has not commented on the case or the alleged involvement of members of his government.
The opposition leader also cites a few reports that state two ministers were aboard Phocea prior to the search, and questions why neither the police nor the prime minister will comment.
Radio New Zealand International also reports that the head of the transnational crime unit was suspended last week over the information blackout concerning the superyacht.