After two years‘ trial, Somali pirates get prison sentences in Hamburg

It should have been an easy case. More than two years ago, a gang of armed robbers captured a merchant vessel in the Indian Ocean. Before they could take the crew hostage, the seamen hid in a safe room, stopped the engines and called fort help. And help came swiftly: a few hours later, heavily armed soldiers fast roped from a helicopter, re-took the vessel and arrested the pirates.

What happend on Easter Monday, April 5, 2010, on the German-flagged MV Taipan off the Somali coast, however, turned out a judicial nightmare for the district court in Hamburg, Germany. After almost two year’s trial, the court handed down the verdicts today: seven pirates got six to seven years in prison; the three others, considered minors at the time of the attack, got three years as juvenile delinquents.

During the trial, the first against pirates in this German port since since Klaus Störtebeker hundreds of years ago, a First World judicial system met Third World defendants. It startet with the usual routine of finding out date and place of birth – but the answers, typically during the rainy season and under a tree didn’t quite match the standards of Western court proceedings. As three of the indicted Somalis probably were minors at the time of the attack, their exact age had to be found out: one of the defendants understood the examination in a German hospital with an x-ray machine,  according to Germany’s weekly Der Spiegel, as a prelude to swift execution.

Misunderstandings like these were abundant, and the lawyers for the pirates repeatedly claimed that the men had not taken to sea volountarily, forced either by the dire situation in Somalia or by their peers. In the end, the court did not follow the defense claims the ten Somalis should be acquitted – but neither did the judges follow the state prosecutor who had demanded jail terms of up to twelve years.

The Hamburg verdict was a first for Germany, but quite probably a trial like this will not be repeated. Despite the surge in piracy off Somalia in recent years, Western nations have been very reluctant to bring Somali pirates to trial. Too complicated, too cumbersome seemed the whole process. So, most pirates taken into custody by the maritime anti-piracy forces off the Horn of Africa were given a free ride home, set out on the Somali coast after their guns, equipment and boats had been destroyed.

Moreover, the rescue of the Taipan was a rare example of pirates caught in the act in record time – thus making legal proceedings easier (and still it took two years until the verdict). The Dutch frigate Tromp had been near the hijacked container vessel on that day in April 2010. One of the problems: The Taipan was just slightly outside the area of operation for the European Union’s antipiracy operation Atalanta to which the Tromp was assigned. Tromp’s commander Hans Lodder checked back with The Hague and chopped out of European command to act outside the mission’s boundaries – sending in a team of Dutch marines.

The Tromp’s mission was helped, however, by a maritime patrol aircraft operated by the German navy. the Orion P-3C also was testing the limits of its legal possibilities, but other limits as well: At the time the hijacked vessel appeared on the monitors of the aircraft’s electronic cameras, the Orion had almosed used up the planned flying time. They must have flown on vapour, Lodder told me later. Shutting down some of the four engines, the German crew managed to remain on station long enough to confirm that only pirates were visible aboard the Taipan – a clear sign the crew was in the safe room, thus making the commando operation possible.