(Adds Ghana’s submission to court paragraphs 11-16)
By Michael Hogan
HAMBURG, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Argentina asked a United Nations court on Thursday to order the immediate release of a tall ship naval training vessel being held in Ghana, west Africa at the request of holders of Argentine bonds which they say are due for repayment.
The Ghanaian authorities detained the sailing frigate ARA Libertad in the port of Tema on Oct. 2 at the request of hedge fund NML Capital Ltd, which says Argentina owes it $300 million on bonds which have been in default since 2002.
Last week creditors won a U.S. court ruling ordering Argentina to pay $1.3 billion to sovereign bond holders who had shunned debt restructuring deals in 2005 and 2010.
But Susana Ruiz Cerutti, head of an Argentinian delegation, told the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea on Thursday that warships have immunity from such claims under international maritime law and it was a “mystery” why Ghana had not allowed the ship to leave.
Cerutti said the tribunal should order the ship’s release as the United Nations convention on maritime law gives warships immunity from civil actions.
“Because a ‘vulture fund’ has chosen the frigate to be the subject of proceedings does not absolve Ghana of its international obligations,” Cerutti said.
Argentina refers to funds like NML as “vulture funds” because they buy distressed or defaulted bonds and then sue in international courts to get paid in full.
The convention does not define warships as carrying weapons and the Libertad is an unarmed naval training vessel, she said.
A skeleton crew of 45 sailors remains on board the Libertad after nearly 300 crew and naval cadets were flown home to Buenos Aires last month.
The ship was visiting Ghana under Argentina’s programme to boost cooperation and friendship in the southern hemisphere and was seized in a “brutal manner”, Cerutti said.
In reply Ghana’s court representative Ebenezer Appreku asked for Argentina’s application be rejected.
Appreku told the Hamburg maritime court the ship’s detention arose from a court order in Ghana concerning a commercial contractual dispute between the private company NML Capital and the state of Argentina which did not involve Ghana’s government.
He said that since Ghana’s constitution separated the powers of the judiciary and the government Ghana’s government “cannot set aside the rule of law” and direct the ship to be released against the order of a court.
“The government of Ghana does not consider itself to be in a state of dispute with the Argentine Republic,” Appreku said.
The issue “has placed Ghana in a difficult and delicate position because we have been unwittingly drawn into a dispute between a foreign corporation and a sovereign state with whom we enjoy good and cordial relations,” Appreku said.
The crew of the vessel had not been subjected to harassment or psychological harm, said Ghana’s government lawyer Anjolie Singh, and power and water was being supplied to the ship.
The court will announce its decision on Dec. 15, tribunal judge Ruediger Wolfrum told Reuters during a break in the proceedings.
He said the court would only make a decision about whether the ship should be released and may not make a wider judgment about whether warships can be arrested in civil debt cases.
Asked what factors would be considered in the court’s decision he said: “We will consider plausible causes and urgency to preserve the procedural position of Argentina.” (Editing by Greg Mahlich)