By: Sharon Uranie
The Seychelles Supreme Court has convicted nine Somalis, including one minor, finding them guilty on three different counts of piracy.
The nine men were being accused of committing an act of piracy on the high seas against a Hong-Kong flagged vessel M/V Zhongji No. 1 on November 6, 2013 and against a Danish Ship ‘M/V Torm Kansas’ on November 9, 2013 as well as for making use of a whaler as a pirate ship.
The suspected pirates were handed over to the Seychelles authorities on November 30, 2013 by Danish Navy ship, HDMS Esbern Snare.
According to reports, the nine men were arrested on the high seas, in the Gulf of Aden on November 10 after they had attempted to hijack another Danish Ship ‘M/V Torm Kansas’.
An article published by maritime website Oceanuslive.org said the crew managed to repel the attacks and solicited backup. HDMS Esbern Snare, which was engaged in the regional anti-piracy NATO Operations came to the rescue, which ended with the arrest of the suspected pirates.
“After the capture of the suspected, a whaler being used as mother ship by the suspects was destroyed, however, the skiff, from which they use to actually carry out their attacks, was seized for the purpose of investigation,” read the article.
It was also reported that the same nine suspects, thought to be aged between 14 to 35 years of age, had also tried to attack a chemical tanker, the Hong Kong-flagged M/V Zhongji No1, four days before, on 6 November, but that armed security personnel on board had retaliated and repelled the attack.
Delivering his judgment last Friday, Seychelles Supreme Court Judge, Sri Lankan national Mohan Niranjit Burhan rejected the defence’s argument that the nine accused were merely fishermen.
“…there was no fishing equipment or deep freeze on board the whaler to indicate that the accused were genuine fishermen,” said Burhan in his deliberation.
The judge also rejected the accused’s claims that they had been detained and tried by the state of Denmark for an act of piracy against the Danish vessel, after which they were allegedly released and promised compensation.
The prosecution had submitted to the Supreme Court that although the state of Denmark had the right to try the suspected pirates, if they did not wish to do so, they could approach a regional state to prosecute the nine, which led the case to be tried in the Seychelles’ UN-funded anti-piracy court, as has been the case with every case prosecuted in the archipelago.
According to Burhan’s judgement, he agreed with this argument, citing the precedence of the concept of universal jurisdiction, which allows states or international organizations to claim criminal jurisdiction over an accused person regardless of where the alleged crime was committed, and regardless of the accused’s nationality, country of residence, or any other relation with the prosecuting entity.
All three counts of piracy for which they were charged carry a maximum prison sentence of 30 years and a fine of almost $75,000.
However, after finding the accused guilty of piracy, Judge Burhan sentenced the eight adults to 14 years in prison on all three counts while the juvenile was given a three-year sentence on each count of piracy. Burhan ruled that the sentences would run concurrently and that the time they had already spent in detention would be deducted from their sentences.
Burhan told SNA that the Supreme Court had sought the expert opinion of forensic analysts from Sri Lanka to confirm claims made by several of the nine accused that they were under 18.
“Forensic analysis proved that only one, the first accused, was in fact a juvenile and this was accepted by both the defence and prosecution,” said Burhan.
The Judge also informed SNA that this was the first piracy trial where the Seychelles court had heard evidence through video links from three witnesses; the master, team leader and security officer of the Danish ship ‘M/V Torm Kansas’.
The western Indian Ocean island nation of the Seychelles, geographically close to the Somali coast, has placed itself at the forefront of the fight against piracy.
The country has been greatly affected by the scourge of piracy which began to plague the Indian Ocean since 2005, affecting the islands’ tourism and fisheries industries. Several groups of Seychellois fishermen have also been held captive and subsequently released by Somali pirates, the last being a pair of elderly fishermen who were released in 2011 after over a year spent in captivity.
Since then, Seychelles has been working with international partners to apprehend and prosecute suspected Somali pirates, and the island nation has prosecuted more than any other country in the region between the years of 2009 and 2013.
According to the Seychelles Prison Services, to date, 114 Somali pirates have been repatriated to Somalia, which includes the three who were acquitted in December last year by the Seychelles Court of Appeal.
Most of the other 111 Somalis that have been sent back to their homeland are serving sentences imposed on them for piracy acts committed either at the Garowe (Puntland) and Hargeysa (Somaliland) prisons.
These are two detention facilities built by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), as part of its Piracy Prisoner Transfer Programme.
Pirate attacks off the vast coastline of Somalia have declined from 236 in 2011 to two reportedly unsuccessful attacks in 2014, thanks to international counter-piracy cooperation efforts.
According to statistics provided to SNA by the Seychelles Prison Service, a total of 33 Somali pirates are still being held at the Seychelles Prison at Montagne Posee prison in the lush tropical mountains leading to the western part of the main inhabited island, Mahé, where they are kept separate from the local prisoners.
Following the latest conviction out of this number, 28 Somali pirates have already been sentenced and the remaining 5 are still on remand awaiting trial.