South Korea set to try captured Somali pirates

Five Somali pirates flown Sunday to South Korea are blaming the hijacking of the Samho Jewelry tanker on eight other pirates who were killed when South Korean navy seals rescued the vessel and its 21 crew members on Jan. 21.

Jo Jung-ho/AP
South Korean policemen lead Somali pirates, hooded, to South Regional Headquarters Korea Coast Guard in Busan, South Korea, Sunday. The coast guard says that five Somali pirates captured during a raid on a hijacked South Korean cargo ship in the Arabian Sea have been brought to South Korea to stand trial.

The five Somali pirates captured in a battle for a South Korean chemical cargo ship in the Arabian Sea now face trial and possible life imprisonment after debate here over what to do with them.

The five, flown Sunday to Korea on a plane provided by the United Arab Emirates, blamed the capture of the ship – and the wounding of its captain – on eight other pirates who were killed when South Korean navy seals rescued the vessel and its 21 crew members on Jan. 21.

A court in the South Korean port city of Pusan formally issued arrest warrants charging the pirates with maritime robbery and attempted murder of the captain, the only crew member injured in the shootout. Flown earlier from Oman on a Korean Air Force ambulance plane, he remains in serious condition after operations for five gunshot wounds in his stomach, wrist, knee and thigh.

The five appeared in court, handcuffed and wearing heavy coats originally issued for the crew of the Samho Jewelry, the 11,500-ton vessel that the pirate band captured and held for one week.

The ship and its crew were recaptured after South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak – who has been criticized for a weak response to North Korea’s shelling of an island in the Yellow Sea in November in which four South Koreans died – decided to act forcefully.

Now, however, top-level officials are wondering how hard to press charges against the pirates while pirate bands hold a small Korean fishing trawler and its 43 crew members, captured last October off the Somali coast. The 247-ton Golden Wave is skippered by a Korean who is believed to own it but has no funds for ransom. The vessel’s engineer is also Korean, two other officers are Chinese and the rest are Kenyan.

The question of what to do with the captured pirates burst into the media here last week when the defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, a former top general who has called for retaliation against North Korea in case of more attacks, said he would “consult” with other officials about exchanging them for the crew of the Golden Wave.

Opposition politicians immediately advocated that idea while the foreign ministry rejected it several days later after what are thought to have been intense behind-the-scenes discussions. The pirates were flown here for trial after officials decided that negotiations for an exchange would only encourage piracy.

“We, as a sovereign nation, should naturally punish those who attacked and harmed our people,” said Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan. “We do not negotiate directly with pirates” as a matter of “basic principle.”

Koreans differ in their view of whether to hold the pirates for long even if they go on trial, are found guilty and sentenced to long terms.

“People will not submit to terrorists’ demands,” says Baek Seun-joo, security and strategy analyst at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “I hope the Korean government will send a strong message.”

Mr. Baek acknowledges, though, that “some lawyers have another opinion” while opposition politicians call for negotiations. The minority Democratic Party, he says, “hopes to create different popular opinion.”

One reason for the government’s decision to act firmly was the humiliation of a reported $9.5 million payout two months ago to obtain the release of a tanker, the Samho Dream, owned by the same company as the Samho Jewelry, and its 24 crew members after they were held for seven months. Another emotional factor is an outpouring of sympathy for the Samho Jewelry’s captain, shown repeatedly in the media here lying unconscious, breathing and fed through tubes.

Whatever finally happens, the pirates, accustomed to warm weather, face an unusually severe winter with temperatures below zero centigrade in much of the country. The Korean Coast Guard, responsible for holding them, has issued sets of winter clothing and is recognizing Muslim custom by keeping pork off their menus.

All Somalis aged from 19 to early 20s, the pirates are expected to offer one basic defense when they go on trial with the aid of Somali interpreters and court-appointed lawyers: the eight others who died were responsible for the mayhem.

One of the five, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, said he climbed aboard the Samho Jewelry only “after the others hijacked it” and had "nothing to do with the hijacking."

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