On The OSINT Trail of Palmali Shipping

Seafarer abandonment is a horrible labor-rights abuse where companies cut loose ships with their crews aboard, often leaving them in dire conditions.

On The OSINT Trail of Palmali Shipping

For those who are unaware, seafarer abandonment is a horrible labor-rights abuse where companies cut loose ships with their crews aboard, often leaving them in dire conditions with few supplies. Since the summer, one of my projects has been creating a map using the International Labour Organisation (ILO) database of abandoned seafarers and any other open sources of information I could find.

November saw me updating the map - and suddenly I realised about seven ships had popped up linked to this company called the Palmali Gemicilik ve Acentelik AS (or in English, Palmali Shipping & Agency). A little bit of research unearthed another three abandoned Palmali ships that hadn’t been caught by the ILO. I decided to go digging.

I can report now that, whilst there have been some dodgy goings on regarding the company’s founder - investigations into sex trafficking and bet-fixing, suspect links to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan - the likeliest reasons for the abandonments are simple.

Mübariz Mansimov, the founder, was arrested in March 2020 due to “suspected Gulenist activity” also known as being involved in the 2016 coup. Whilst this means next to nothing - over 96,000 people have been arrested during and in the aftermath of the coup in a significant regime-led purge - it has meant the company has gone into financial difficulties. However, as a newcomer to OSINT techniques, this little investigation taught me a lot about trying to track down companies, and I’m going to write out some of what I learned here.

Ships and Shipping

The best place to find accurate information on who owns a ship in real time is the IMO Web Accounts Database. It is not well sign-posted, but you can create a free account and access their database, searching for a ship by IMO number or name. It will, usually, list the name of the company that owns that ship and the year it took ownership - though sometimes it will just be “reported sold, undisclosed interest.” However, sometimes IMO numbers won’t return any results. This might be because the vessel you are interested in isn’t registered, or because it has since been broken up.

It is, however, a free option compared to sites like Marine Traffic or the World Ships Register. These usually have pictures of the vessels in question, but their information on owners is hidden behind a paywall.

Interlude: Web Searching

I did a lot of initial web searching on everything related to Palmali on several different search engines (Google, Bing, Yandex - I didn’t get round to using the others). This turned up the discovery that one of the abandoned oil tankers, the Agdash, was actually owned by Erdogan’s brother-in-law and the son of a close friend through a series of shell companies. Because of this, I decided to try and reverse-engineer the journalism that led to that discovery, thinking that if I could work out those steps, I could repeat them for the other ships.

Business Registries and Leaks Databases

The first stop was the Malta Business Registry, as the shell company that technically owned the Agdash (Pal Trader Shipping One Co Ltd) was registered in Malta (as are all of the shells which own the abandoned Palmali vessels). This gave useful information on the main shareholder, another shell called Bumerz Ltd. I then confirmed this with a search on the ICIJ offshore leaks website, which only really had the business registry files. Interestingly, the address listed (35 Zachary Street, Valletta, Malta) doesn’t actually exist in that format - extensive searches on Google Maps and Google Earth Pro only showed up a St Zachary Street). Even more interestingly, 63 companies use it for their registered address.

I couldn’t find anything more down this avenue, or on OCCRP Aleph so I went back to web searching.

The Surprise Find!

Several pages deep into a search, I stumbled across a Google Drive folder - a Google Drive folder containing downloads of documents relating to Pal Trader Shipping One Co Ltd which were behind a paywall on the Malta Business Registry. This was very exciting, and it included a lot of evidence of switches between shareholders of Bumerz Ltd - and a lot of names. You could use these documents to piece together at least part of the story of this shell company and the backroom dealings involved. The most important piece of evidence was that the director of Bumerz Ltd between 2008 and 2015 was Ziya Ilgen - President Erdogan’s brother in law. He was replaced in 2015 by Bahaddin Ayan, the son of a family friend of the president.

Concluding Thoughts

When I tried to do this process on the other abandoned vessels, there was nothing suspect involved at all. The Malta Business Registry shows that all shares of the shell companies were held by Mansimov, the founder of the parent company. Because of this, I decided to stop the investigation for the moment. However, the whole experience - and the scoop broken by Malta Today - shows that, whilst companies are difficult to crack, sometimes it does pay off.

Learn More About The Images We Choose

Today we are celebrating the work of artist Zaki Abdelmounim and joining him in his hunt for what's left of Hong Kong's iconic neon signs, an essential element of this cityscape's visual culture, covering HK's streets for years with glow. We will roam the dazzling roads aimlessly reminiscing about a dystopian past that only existed in neo-noire cult fiction movies like Blade Runner, trying to burn these lively picturesque streets into our memories before they vanish, all while figuring out how to thrive creatively in this organized chaos. Hopefully this vaporwave stylized series of street photography will bring as much joy as it did to us.

The beautiful image used in this article was created by Zaki Abdelmounim.