Navy Charges Ship Captain Who Turned Away Refugees
Aug. 24, 1988
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Navy has accused the captain of the USS Dubuque of dereliction of duty for failing to rescue a boatload of Vietnamese refugees who claim they later resorted to cannibalism to survive.
Pentagon sources said Tuesday it appears there were sufficient indications of hardship aboard the refugee boat when it crossed paths with the Dubuque that the Navy warship should have taken aboard the survivors.
Capt. Alexander G. Balian, 48, of Los Angeles has been charged with two counts of violating lawful orders under a section of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that calls for ''non-judicial punishment proceedings,'' said Cmdr. David Dillon, a Pacific Fleet spokesman in San Diego, Calif.
As a result, the 48-year-old Navy captain was ordered to appear at a closed ''admiral's mast'' on Wednesday afternoon before Vice Adm. George W. Davis Jr., the head of all surface ships in the Pacific Fleet, the spokesman added.
In such a proceeding, Davis would serve as the lone judge or authority in considering the evidence. The admiral could take a variety of disciplinary actions, including stripping Balian of his command permanently, ordering a fine or issuing a letter of reprimand or censure.
However, Balian notified the Navy on Tuesday afternoon that he was exercising his right to refuse the admiral's mast, according to Captain Peter Litrenta, spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Litrenta said that under military law, Davis now will have to decide whether to drop the matter or order an Article 32 hearing. An Article 32 hearing, similar to a civilian grand jury proceeding, is the first step in a full military court martial.
Balian was temporarily relieved of his command of the Dubuque on Aug. 13 while on patrol in the Persian Gulf pending the outcome of a Navy investigation. Davis is scheduled to retire on Saturday, suggesting he will make a decision quickly.
Balian was charged with violating a general Navy regulation ''by wrongfully failing to render appropriate assistance to Vietnamese refugees found on the South China Sea on June 9, 1988, in danger of being lost.''
The second count accuses him of violating standing operational orders for the Pacific Fleet ''which require a commanding officer to aid and rescue refugees encountered at sea in life-endangering circumstances.''
That charge alleges Balian ''was derelict in the performance of those duties in that he negligently failed to investigate sufficiently and render appropriate assistance ... as it was his duty to do.''
A Navy official who asked not be identified said Balian informed the Navy of his decision to refuse the admiral's mast after consulting an unidentified civilian attorney. The Navy had earlier assigned Balian a military attorney.
The official said Tuesday night that Davis was unlikely to dismiss the charges as a result of Balian's refusal to accept non-judicial punishment.
The Dubuque, an amphibious landing ship, encountered the boatload of Vietnamese refugees while steaming to duty in the Persian Gulf. According to the Navy, the Dubuque provided the refugees several hundred pounds of food and water and navigational aids but did not take them aboard because ''the refugee craft was judged seaworthy'' by Balian.
Navy regulations and orders specify that warships should ''be alert for refugees on the high seas'' and ''if encountered, ships are to extend humanitarian assistance as needed.''
''In the case of an unseaworthy vessel, adverse weather or other special circumstances, the refugees may be embarked and transported to the Navy ship's next port of call.''
The boat people were eventually rescued off the coast of the Philippines and taken to a refugee camp there, where reports of murder and cannibalism began to surface. Both the Navy and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees have been investigating those reports.
According to Robert Cooper, the Manila representative of the U.N. commission, 52 refugees survived 37 days at sea but 58 people died during the crossing. The refugees began their journey on May 22 from the Mekong Delta town of Ben Tre aboard a 35-foot wooden boat. Its engine failed two or three days later.
Some of the survivors have been quoted as saying they killed and ate some of their fellow passengers to stay alive after they encountered the Dubuque on June 9. Two of the victims reportedly died of starvation, but three others allegedly were murdered through drowning and then eaten.
Some survivors charged the Dubuque refused to take them aboard even though their boat was disabled and they were dying of exposure and starvation. The Dubuque left them because it was on a ''dangerous mission,'' the survivors claim to have been told.
According to a defense official who demanded anonymity, the Navy's internal investigation led to charges against Balian because ''it appears there might have been sufficient reason to conclude this boat was not seaworthy and was in trouble.''
''There are allegations that members of the crew, including the translator who went aboard the (refugee) boat, were distressed by the decision not to board the survivors,'' the source continued.