BY JOSEPH AKWIRI
(Reuters) – A Kenyan court sentenced 24 Somalis to seven years each in prison on Thursday for attempting to hijack an Iranian merchant vessel, FV Ariya, in the Gulf of Oman in October 2010.
The men, who were arrested by the Dutch navy working under NATO command, were handed over to Kenyan authorities because Somalia, which is struggling to rebuild after two decades of civil war, was not seen as stable enough to try them properly.
Although the number of hijackings has fallen markedly since 2011 due to tighter security aboard ships and increased Western naval patrols, piracy emanating from the Horn of Africa nation may still cost the world¬†economy¬†about $18 billion a year, the World Bank said in 2013.
Kenya is one of a few countries that are prosecuting pirates, alongside Seychelles and Mauritius. But the cases are difficult to prosecute and take a long time to complete.
Presiding magistrate Richard Odenyo said in his ruling that there was enough evidence to prove that the 24 men attacked the ship armed with AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, rocket launchers and other crude weapons.
“The accused used violence and offensive weapons against the crew, and put the lives of the crew in danger,” he said, as a translator relayed the ruling in Somali language.
The court also ordered the accused to be repatriated to Somalia when they had finished serving their sentence.
Jared Magolo, the lawyer representing the suspects, said the sentence was too harsh and he would seek his clients’ consent to appeal.
“Neither the ship owners nor the crew testified in this case, so who is complaining?” he asked reporters.
The 24 suspects, one of whom appeared in the dock on crutches after his leg was amputated, had been held in custody at one of Kenya’s high security prisons since their arrest.
More than 20 other Somalis were jailed in Kenya last year for similar offences in different trials.
The European Naval Force for Somalia has said it arrested five suspected pirates last weekend who had unsuccessfully tried to hijack an oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden.
(Editing by Duncan Miriri and Hugh Lawson)