The hijacking of the Brillante Virtuoso is one of the strangest episodes of high-seas piracy that anyone in the shipping industry can remember.
Let us take a look at what exactly happened with the Brillante Virtuoso and why it is suddenly back in news?
M/V Brillante Virtuoso was a Greek-owned, Liberian-flagged suezmax tanker damaged beyond repair as a result of an insurance scam that comprised a fictitious hijacking by Yemenis posing as Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden on July 6, 2011. The vessel’s beneficial owner, Marios Iliopoulos, was determined to have coordinated and initiated the phoney attack. At the time, Iliopoulos was having serious financial problems. Iliopoulos has not been criminally prosecuted as of 2022 for his participation in the fictitious attack on the Brillante Virtuoso.
The 2011 Incident
Early on July 6, 2011, the ship was sailing from Kerch, Ukraine, to Qingdao, China, carrying a $100 million shipment of fuel oil. She reported that the crew was abandoning ship after being attacked by Somali pirates with small guns and a rocket-propelled grenade that had started a fire in the accommodation block of the ship’s superstructure after transiting the Suez Canal and being around 20 nautical miles south west of Aden.
The guided missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea, operating as part of the Combined Maritime Forces, responded and rescued the crew of 26, all Filipinos, but found no evidence of pirates.
Two tugboats were dispatched from Aden by the ship’s owners, Suez Fortune Investment Ltd. of Greece, to put out the fire and tow the ship to safety. Surveys conducted later revealed no evidence of RPG damage or small-arms fire penetration from outside, but there was proof that AK-47s had been fired inside the ship.
According to reports, David Mockett, a British marine shipping surveyor and consultant who was looking into the incident, thought the attack on Brillante Virtuoso was committed by a group of criminals as part of an insurance scam. Mockett was assassinated on July 20, 2011, in Yemen by a car bomb before he could take any more action.
In the years after the alleged attack the insurers of the ship expressed doubt that the incident was caused by Somali pirates. They noted discrepancies in the captain’s handling of the ship in dangerous waters versus what was standard practice. The ship’s investigation also showed that the fire wasn’t caused by weapons but was set on purpose.
The Court Case
After a 52-day trial, a High Court judge named Mr. Justice Teare ruled on October 7, 2019, that the so-called pirate attack didn’t happen and that the whole thing was a fake set up by the ship’s owner, Marios Iliopoulos, who was having a lot of money problems at the time. The ship’s captain and chief engineer, the local salvagers, Poseidon Salvage (especially Vassilios Vergos), and the hired “pirates,” who were actually current or former members of the Yemeni coast guard or navy, were all involved in the plot.
On October 24, 2021, Sir Gary Streeter, MP for South West Devon, brought up the issue in Parliament and summed up his thoughts: ‘First, I will set out the background to the matter, and the link between the murder of Captain Mockett and the commercial court case of the Brillante Virtuoso. Secondly, I will set out the many attempts that the family have made to seek justice, and the failings of our prosecuting authorities. Finally, I will spell out the steps that we wish the Minister to take to achieve justice for my constituents.’
Veteran Bloomberg journalists Matthew Campbell and Kit Chellel built upon their 2017 article to release their 2022 book Dead in the Water: A True Story of Hijacking, Murder, and a Global Maritime Conspiracy. The new book claims that they have found a source who knows the actual truth about the whole incident!
Here is a super-interesting video on this topic by Bloomberg: