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June 17, 2010

Netherlands court convicts Somali pirates

In the first piracy case to go to trial in Europe in the present century, a Dutch court in Rotterdam today convicted five Somalis of piracy and sentenced them to five years in prison.

A statement from the Rotterdam court issued after the verdict said:

Today the district court of Rotterdam rendered judgement in the case of five Somali men suspected of piracy. They were arrested in the Gulf of Aden on January 2, 2009 by a Danish naval vessel at [the scene of] an attack of the Samanyolu, flying under the flag of the Netherlands Antilles. They were transferred to the Netherlands on February 10, 2009 for trial.

The defenses put forward by the lawyers to bar the prosecutor have not been granted. One of the questions to be answered in that respect was whether the Dutch court has jurisdiction in this case. According to the court this is the case, now that the Netherlands has vested so-called universal jurisdiction in the Criminal Code for cases of piracy on the open sea. This national regulation is not contrary to international conventions.

The Court agrees with the lawyers that it took too long before the suspects were brought before a judge after their arrest. In this case this was 40 days. That could and should have been done earlier. This constitutes a breach of article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, no consequences follow from this in these criminal proceedings.

All five suspects are pronounced guilty as charged. It is proved that they went out to sea in a small boat, heavily armed, with the plan to hijack a ship. No credence was given to their statements that they only committed violence out of self-defense against an attack by the Samanyolu crew.

The judgement emphasizes that piracy in the Gulf of Aden forms a serious threat for international shipping and that this should be dealt with firmly. The unfavourable circumstances in Somalia, both in a general sense and concerning the suspects personally, have not been accepted as a justification for acts of piracy.

All five suspects have received a 5-year prison sentence. The sentence is lower than the seven years demanded. Although to a minor extent, it has been taken into consideration that in other comparable cases the arrested suspects were released and will not be tried. It has furthermore been taken into consideration that detention in the Netherlands forms a heavy burden on the suspects, who are far from home and cannot, or can hardly, maintain contact with their families in Somalia.

INTERTANKO commented that "this could turn out to be a landmark case," noting that the crew did not attend to give evidence in person but provided written testimony, and also that although the pirates apparently threw their weapons over the side, evidence from the personnel of the Danish frigate that they had used them prevailed.

The pirates launched their attack on the Semanyolu in the Gulf of Aden in January 2009 but the Turkish crew defended the ship with flares and Molotov cocktails, which set the pirates' boat on fire and sank it. A helicopter from the Danish frigate rescued the pirates and European warrants for their arrest were subsequently issued by the Netherlands. In February, they were extradited to the Netherlands.

"INTERTANKO applauds this very positive step" says INTERTANKO Marine Director Captain Howard Snaith, "which indicates the willingness of a European nation to adhere to its obligations under international law to deliver justice to the pirates."

INTERTANKO said the case may also provide a good measure of the evidence required in order to secure prosecution and conviction. Implications can and will be drawn from the possession of rifles and grenades by those who allege they are just fishing in piracy infested waters.

"We therefore hope that this will lead to successful prosecutions becoming the norm for both actual and attempted hijackings," concludes Snaith.

Radio Netherlands Worldwide reports that, after the verdict, defense lawyers said they were considering an appeal. One said it was "a unique case that should be prosecuted to the highest court." The defense has 14 days to decide whether to appeal the conviction.

The pirates will serve their sentences, minus the time they have already spent in jail awaiting trial, in an as yet unnamed Dutch prison.

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