Historic Somali piracy trial in US wrapping up as German one opens

The Somali piracy trials, the first in centuries, have shed light on counterpiracy efforts. But some say the trials will not deter pirates, who have hijacked 37 ships in 2010 alone.

Alba Bragoli/AP Photo
In this courtroom sketch, five suspected Somali pirates listen to the judge during jury selection at the the federal courthouse in Norfolk, Va., on Nov. 10. The group is being tried on piracy and related charges for the April 1 attack on the USS Nicholas, a Norfolk-based frigate, off the coast of Africa.

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The first piracy trial in the US since the Civil War is nearing a conclusion this week, as Germany's first such trial in hundreds of years opens.

The trials add legal heft to multinational efforts to curb Somali pirates that have hijacked 37 ships, taken 700 hostages, and killed or hurt 12 people this year alone. But some experts doubt such trials will be much of a deterrent.

The trial in America this month has offered a rare glimpse into the US Navy's counterpiracy operations as well as the murky world of Somali pirates, who have plagued one of the world's busiest shipping lanes for years.

Five Somali men are standing trial in Norfolk, Va., on plundering, weapons, and 12 other charges for their failed April 1 attack on a US Navy ship disguised to look like a cargo freighter.

The five men's defense attorneys have argued that they were "innocent fishermen who were abducted by pirates and forced to fire their weapons at the ship," according to the Associated Press. Their case will go to jurors for a decision after today's closing arguments. If found guilty, they face life in jail, AP reported.

During the attacks, three of the Somali men jumped into a skiff and raced toward the US-guided missile frigate Nicholas, then fired rounds from their AK-47 assault rifles that hit the ship's mast but hurt no one, according to the Los Angeles Times.

By dawn, US Navy commandos had seized the five men, the L.A. Times said.

They were flown to Norfolk after Kenya refused to accept them for prosecution.

The L.A. Times notes that the trial has highlighted the difficulties in prosecuting Somali pirates in US courts, especially since the men never actually boarded the US Navy vessel. "In a similar but separate case, another federal judge in Norfolk dismissed piracy charges against six other Somalis accused of firing at the U.S. Navy vessel Ashland, although they face other charges," the L.A. Times wrote. "Prosecutors are appealing."

Meanwhile, the trial of 10 separate Somali pirates opened in the German city of Hamburg on Monday, the first piracy trial in Germany for some 400 years. The men, between the ages of 17 and 48, stand accused of attacking the MS Taipan 560 miles off the Somali coast, according to Agence France-Presse.

The Dutch Navy boarded the ship after a gun battle and then handed the pirates over to Germany. According to AFP, the crew escaped harm by "hiding in a so-called 'panic room.' "

AFP noted that decapitation used to be the sentence for piracy in the German port of Hamburg. These men face a 15-year prison sentence instead.

Experts quoted by AFP said they doubt the trials will deter pirates; in fact they might even encourage some. "Spending three, five, even seven years in a European or American jail followed by political asylum – you can't do much better as a Somali man," Anja Shortland, who studies piracy at the German Institute for Economic Research, told AFP.

Already this year there have been 164 piracy incidents, with 37 hijackings, 700 people taken hostage and 12 killed or hurt, according to The Daily Telegraph.

In 2009, there were 214 attacks, 47 hijackings and 867 people taken hostage, according to a report from international law firm Ince & Co. The report noted that more than 60 percent of pirates who are captured are simply released, demonstrating "a collective lack of political will to arrest and prosecute pirates in courts."

The Telegraph reported this weekend that the British government is in "secret talks" to send taxpayer-funded mercenaries to train Somali forces to battle pirates like those that held British citizens Paul and Rachel Chandler for more than a year after seizing their sailing yacht.

Acting as "mentors" the ex-SBS men will be allowed to accompany the new crews on patrols going into action in armed encounters with the gangs.

Operating in fast boats capable of outrunning the pirates' converted fishing vessels, the plan is to retake the coastline and prevent the pirates from putting to sea or returning to shore with kidnap victims.

The Chandlers told the Telegraph in remarks published this weekend that their Somali captors were "misguided," and said they practiced yoga and aerobics to keep fit while being held.

"People will expect us to want these people dead," Mrs. Chandler told the Telegraph. "But we do not. We actually want to make close contact with Somali people when we get back to England and try to persuade the international community to help restore law and order in their country. That way our suffering will not have been in vain."

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