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The international naval operation off the east African coast seems to have little trouble capturing suspected pirates. European Union forces rounded up 275 of them in March and April alone.
Putting them on trial is more of a problem.
Of the 275 people picked up by EU warships, 235 were sent home after their weapons were destroyed.
Faced with legal uncertainties and the potentially prohibitive costs of trials, the Europeans are not alone in baulking at the prospect of prosecuting the pirates.
Russia said it set free 10 Somalis seized by its marines in a dramatic rescue of an oil tanker earlier this month, but claims their boat then disappeared. Somali sources have claimed they were executed. The U.S. Navy releases many of the pirates it rounds up in the Gulf of Aden and only prosecutes those who have attacked U.S. vessels. One Somali man was taken to a New York court last month, where he pleaded guilty to hijacking and kidnapping.
Much is at stake then in the trial of five Somalis accused of “sea robbery,” which opened today in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
The case is the first to come to court in Europe since the wave of Somali piracy began to plague international shipping and it could prove crucial in showing international commitment to bringing the pirates to justice.
The EU has struck a deal with Kenya and the Seychelles under which the African nations agree to prosecute pirates handed over to them, but despite aid from Europe they have limited capacity. The EU’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, had to fly to East Africa last week in an effort to persuade them to not drop out of the arrangement. Other nations in the region have shown little enthusiasm for striking similar deals.
Several EU nations will therefore be looking closely at the trial in the Netherlands to see how effective trials in Europe can be. Spain, France and Germany are all preparing prosecutions against suspected Somali pirates.
The Dutch issued arrest warrants last year for the five who were detained by Danish marines responding to a distress call from a freighter registered in the Netherlands Antilles.
Defense lawyers however have challenged the jurisdiction of the Dutch court. The defendants deny charges that they attacked the ship with guns and rocket launches, saying they were fishermen seeking help after the engine failed on their boat. They have also appealed for the court to take account of the desperate poverty of fishing communities along Somalia’s lawless coast.
A judgment is expected on June 16. If convicted the Somalis face up to 12 years in jail.