MOSCOW, Russia — When the Moscow University, an oil tanker owned by the Russian government, sent out a distress signal from the Gulf of Aden early Wednesday, a rescue plan emerged like clockwork.
The ship’s crew cut the power and hid in a saferoom as Somali pirates boarded the vessel, loaded with $52 million worth of oil destined for China. A nearby Russian warship, the Marshall Shaposhnikov, changed course and headed for the distressed tanker.
It arrived by midnight, and the following morning Russian special forces launched a rescue operation that lasted a total of three and a half hours, including a fierce 22-minute gunfight that saw one pirate killed and many of the 10 surviving pirates injured. With that, the Russian crew and vessel were freed, the pirates taken into custody with promises they would face trial on Russian territory.
On Friday, citing imperfections in international maritime law, Russia released the Somali pirates to the near certainty that they will attempt to rob again.
International experts praised the Russian rescue mission. “It was a very well exercised operation,” said Peter Lehr, a piracy expert at the University of St Andrews.
Yet more than anything, Russia’s swift, crisp response to Wednesday’s attack stands in marked contrast to the chaos that surrounded the alleged hijacking of the Arctic Sea, the Russian-crewed cargo ship that went missing in European waters in August, amid widespread claims that it was carrying illegal Russian arms to Iran.
“There are eight supposed pirates sitting in a Russian prison, and these, today, they just put them on a boat and let them go? It doesn’t make any sense,” said Omar Akhmedov, a lawyer who until recently represented Dmitry Savin, one of the eight men accused of piracy in the case of the Arctic Sea.
As Russia stood captivated by the Somali pirate incident, a Moscow court quietly began considering the cases of the eight men, ethnic Russians from Russia, Estonia and Latvia.
On Wednesday, two of the men — Savin and Andrei Lunev — took a plea bargain, proclaiming their guilt in exchange for reduced sentences. So with no examination of the evidence, or hearing of witnesses, Lunev was sentenced Friday to five years in prison. His lawyer was not present at the sentencing, Interfax reported.
Moscow’s Basmanny court extended the detention of the remaining men until Aug. 18, said Elena Lebedeva-Romanova, a lawyer for another one of the accused. She said her client, Evgeny Moronov, is maintaining his right to silence — Russia’s version of pleading the fifth.
All the men, including Savin and Lunev, had proclaimed their innocence from the beginning.
According to Russian investigators, the Arctic Sea, a Maltese-flagged ship owned by a Russian-run Finnish firm, was hijacked near Sweden by the eight men one day after setting off from the Finnish port of Pietarsaari on July 24, 2009 with a $2 million load of timber destined for the northern Algerian port of Bejaia. It supposedly fell off the radar for three weeks, when it was spotted off the coast of Cape Verde and rescued by the Russian navy.
Lawyers for some of the alleged pirates said they were being trained for an ecological mission, began taking on water and sought refuge with the Arctic Sea.
Neither story seems to tell the whole truth.
Mikhail Voitenko, a Russian naval analyst, was the loudest proponent of the theory that the ship was intercepted while carrying Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, after a tip-off from Israeli intelligence. The theory appeared to gain heft following a secret visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of the scandal.
Reached by telephone in Thailand, where he has been living since fleeing Russia on Sept. 3 for fear of his life, Voitenko said that theory was the only possibility. “I don’t think it, I know it,” he said, citing two sources that he refused to name.
He said following the case of the alleged pirates was pointless. “They have no access to lawyers. We haven’t seen the materials. We haven’t seen any witnesses.”
It’s been nearly nine months since the Arctic Sea scandal came to a close with the alleged pirates’ arrest. The global buzz surrounding the affair has all but died out.
The Arctic Sea has been sold to a Canadian company, according to Russian news reports. No one at Solchart, the ship's owner at the time of the alleged hijacking, would comment on anything related to the ship on Friday.
Voitenko said he has found out that Solchart is backed by an official who served in the GRU, the Soviet-era foreign intelligence agency, and that he is now trying to sell the company.
Meanwhile, the courts will keep trying the alleged pirates.
And life goes on. Gunta Savin, the wife of Dmitry Savin, one of the two men who pleaded guilty this week, had always maintained his innocence. She was pregnant when he set off to sea, and gave birth to their son in February. “We’re in touch through letters,” she said. “I sent him a picture.”