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As Russia releases Somalis, other "pirates" languish in jail

Mystery surrounds the men accused of hijacking the Arctic Sea.

A suspected hijacker of the bulk carrier Arctic Sea is escorted at Moscow's Basmanny court on Aug. 21, 2009. (Grigory Dukor/Reuters)

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.