The stiff prison sentence given a Somali pirate in US federal court in Manhattan Wednesday – nearly 34 years – is meant to be a deterrent to armed attackers who would board and hold for ransom unarmed commercial ships.
But the unresolved dilemma in many cases for those battling piracy is how to get beyond the often very poor young men recruited as pirates and get at the organizers who finance the piracy operations.
According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), in the past 12 months there have been 286 piracy-related incidents off the coast of Somalia resulting in 67 hijacked ships, with 1,130 seafarers on board.
In recent days, two supertankers have been attacked by pirates.
The Greek-flagged Irene SL, carrying 266,000 tons of crude oil and a 25-man crew, was seized last week 200 nautical miles east of Oman. Authorities have lost contact with the ship.
The day before that, reports the Associated Press, Somali pirates firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades hijacked an Italian-flagged oil tanker in the Indian Ocean that had been heading from Sudan to Malaysia.
On Tuesday, the South Korean fishing trawler Keummi 305 arrived in the Kenyan port of Mombasa after its release last week by Somali pirates. The trawler had been held for four months, reportedly used as a “mother ship” for pirates attacking other vessels.
“The number of attacks remains unabated this year,” says Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The overall level is still fairly high.”
At the moment, the IMO reported Monday, “685 seafarers of various nationalities are being held for ransom on board 30 ships under various flags at various locations off the extensive Somali coastline – reflecting a situation which has progressively worsened over the last 12 months.”
“Piracy attacks are becoming more violent and the tactics used by pirates include using hijacked ships as bases (‘mother ships’) for carrying out further attacks, with their crews remaining on board as ‘human shields,” according to the IMO. “Furthermore, recent attacks on ships sailing at far distances from the Somali coast and in areas north and east of the Horn of Africa, which, until now, were considered relatively safe, have made an already complicated issue even more difficult. These developments make military intervention even more arduous and highlight the emphatic need for ships to take every possible measure to avoid being taken in the first instance.”
In 2009, four Somali pirates seized the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama and its crew of 20 about 240 nautical miles off the coast. After several days, during which ship captain Richard Phillips was held hostage in a lifeboat, Navy SEAL snipers killed three of the pirates. The surviving pirate, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, was brought to New York for prosecution.
Last May, he pleaded guilty to two felony counts of hijacking maritime vessels, two felony counts of kidnapping, and two felony counts of hostage-taking.
The sentencing range for those crimes was 27 years to 33 years and nine months. Based on his impoverished background and relative youth (although there was some question about his actual age), his attorneys had argued for the shorter sentence.
But citing what prosecutors had said were Muse’s cruel and threatening behavior during the episode, United States District Judge Loretta Preska chose the longer sentence period.
"It is this marked uptick in piracy and armed robbery at sea and the need to deter other individuals from undertaking this kind of conduct," she said, which "makes the higher sentence absolutely necessary."
As far as captured pirates are concerned, “nobody has figured out how to deal with them,” says Ms. Cooke, noting ambiguities in national and international law. While Kenya has convicted some 30 pirates and given them fairly lenient sentences, she says, other captured pirates more typically are sent back home.
That will not be the case for Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, given the maximum sentence this week.