A Travel Nightmare: 'Boat Arrest'
LUKE BURBANK, host:
Okay. It's almost 7:30 a.m. New York time. But as we speak, some 8,000 miles from here, on the other side of the world, an American guy named Justin Taylan is in the Solomon Islands in some seriously hot water. He's on trial there for illegally entering the area, which is off the East Coast of Australia. He could do something like up to two years in prison if he's convicted.
This all started back on November 6th when Taylan and his crew sailed into the area looking to take pictures of old World War II aircraft that had crashed in the water. This area is where Guadalcanal was fought and that's where some of the fiercest fighting of the war went down, so there's lots of these World War II treasures that are in the water.
Anyway, Taylan says he and his crew saw something they weren't supposed to see, and now authorities in the Solomon Islands are trying to silence him - that's what he says. He's been confined to his boat for the past month.
STEWART: He's on boat arrest?
BURBANK: He is on boat arrest.
We managed to get a hold of him last night, in the middle of the night, Solomon Islands' time. Here's that conversation.
So, Justin, how did you come to be under boat arrest in the Solomon Islands?
Mr. JUSTIN TAYLAN (World War II Relic Specialist): Back in November, my friends and I were visiting the battlefield sights from the Second World War. And we entered the Solomon Islands at a port of entry legally, announcing ourselves to the police and began our explorations there as tourists taking photos, documenting the remaining World War II relics in that area.
Quite to our surprise, we stumbled upon a salvage of World War II aircraft going on at a small island that was a former Japanese air base, and we were even more surprised when the same police we had checked in with only two days previously told us that they needed to borrow our passports to copy them and to proceed to the police station.
We followed their instructions thinking there must be some misunderstanding or problem, and instead of having the situation resolved, our passports were not returned, no charges were laid, and that began the beginning of 18 days of being held in boat arrest onboard our vessel without any information or charges being filed. We immediately understood that we were - something was developing and we had observed something that we shouldn't have.
BURBANK: Justin, what do you think you observed? What was going on?
Mr. TAYLAN: Well, what we've observed was a salvage operation at this particular island over a half dozen Japanese airplane wrecks. Now these relics from the war - they remain to this day, but they are valuable. They are both historical treasures, people fought and died in them, and for better or worse, they are also valuable as wartime relics on the aviation market where people buy and sell their parts or even complete airplanes. So obviously, we observed the salvage that was going on for commercial gain, and perhaps was even illegal.
BURBANK: What is the law down there in terms of who can take these planes out of the water? Are they legally not allowed to be disturbed?
Mr. TAYLAN: Correct, the Solomon Islands have a legislation called the War Relics Act that protects all World War II relics, but most of Solomon Islands tourism and promotion revolves around people, like myself, coming to visit these wrecks, scuba dive them, and enjoy them.
BURBANK: Are there any allegations that, in fact, you were there to illegally salvage these planes, and, in fact, you're the bad guy in this story?
Mr. TAYLAN: As soon as we were apprehended, there was no information provided to us, but we were well aware of the possibility that it could spun by the salvagers that we were there to actually remove the air planes.
Our boat was searched twice by the police, and, you know, the, of course, our interest is simply in taking pictures and video, not removing these actual items. Aside from the practical problems of removing airplanes that would be larger than our boat, our interest is purely historical.
BURBANK: What are the authorities charging you with?
Mr. TAYLAN: We were all charged with an immigration offense for illegally entering the Solomon Islands, and even more disturbing is that particular offense that involves a monetary fine and/or three years imprisonment as a maximum sentence.
BURBANK: How is it that they were actually detaining you? Did they have a boat blocking your boat from leaving, and you said they had your passports at one point, but why not just sail away and sail back to the U.S. and get new passports?
Mr. TAYLAN: Very simply we felt we did nothing wrong; we were here a tourists. We hadn't - as tourist, we had nothing to hide, and we wanted to comply fully with the authorities because we hope to return to this country. There's so much historical study to be done here. There are many missing American airplanes and remains to be found. And our hope was to comply fully with these authorities and, obviously, in the hopes that we would be released or the situation would be resolved naturally. Unfortunately, it was not, and unfortunately, after trial charges were laid, we were told to await a court date.
BURBANK: And that court date has arrived. Tell me a little bit about what this Solomon Islands' court even looks like?
Mr. TAYLAN: It has a single overhead fan that's, naturally, over the judge, and there's a prosecuting lawyer representing the state and there's our lawyer. And we are represented by a public defender, and our counsel with this defender was only two hours prior to the trial.
BURBANK: What is this defender saying to you about your chances of getting out of the Solomon Islands without doing jail time?
Mr. TAYLAN: When we met her, she said that she couldn't make us any promises and told us that our chances of being found not guilty were perhaps 50-50 or, at best, 80 percent.
BURBANK: Do you know what the Solomon Islands jail that might await you - what that looks like?
Mr. TAYLAN: Let's just say we smelled the jail before we saw it.
BURBANK: Wow, it sounds a little bit to me, Justin, like you've had the chance to either just leave the islands with your boat or at least raise attention with the U.S. and maybe kind of avoid this trial, but it sounds to me like you're trying to make a point here as well. Is that accurate?
Mr. TAYLAN: Absolutely, well, of course, we could have plead guilty and been ordered to leave, probably banned from ever returning, but we, at no point, were allowed to leave the country during the time we were detained, and since charges were laid, we're technically under arrest.
The U.S. consulate in the country as well as the embassies of the - my other friends have told us there's nothing they can do to help us. We have been here now for over 30 days, it's approaching 40, and we are running short on supplies. And as you can imagine, that - that time of detainment on a 10-meter boat is not ideal.
BURBANK: What are you doing to pass the time on this boat? You must be going absolutely nuts from boredom.
Mr. TAYLAN: Well, because of our situation of being here for so long, the boat is a motor vessel, has an engine, we have to power off the boat. Meaning, we cannot run air-conditioning, therefore, we can not run a freezer or any other amenities. We are literally sweating it out in the tropical sun, and simply to conserve our fuels so we have enough to return home whenever this ends.
On the boat, luckily, is equipped with solar panels, so we're able to charge the batteries for our laptops and read and sort of pass time that way, but as we all have appreciated, it seems every day that the time moves very slowly in paradise.
BURBANK: What are your parents saying to you about this?
Mr. TAYLAN: Well, of course, initially, I was very worried about explaining to them that their son was under arrest without charges. I knew they would be quite worried, and since we had so little information, I decided not to tell them initially until charges were laid against us and we had a clearer picture of what was going to happen.
So my efforts with my friends and family have been entirely geared to how can we tell the story and expose what's going on here. And I believe that if we are sentenced to jail, we will immediately appeal in the High Court of the Solomon Islands and see that the rights of tourists to visit these important relics are upheld.
BURBANK: Justin Taylan, self-described World War II historian, from his boat in the Solomon Islands where he is currently on trial for illegal entry. Justin, thank you so much and best of luck with this, okay?
Mr. TAYLAN: Thank you very much.
BURBANK: As far as we can tell, we might be the only news outlet that's really covering this story, so we'll keep bringing you updates on the blog as we hear them.
STEWART: Coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, two very funny cartoons that could've been in the New Yorker except they rejected them.
BURBANK: Any cartoon that involves manboobs is aces in my game.
STEWART: You got to stick around for this. It's coming up next in THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News; Korva Coleman with the newscast too.
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