Long road to justice – The German piracy trial
October 21, 2012 2 Comments
This post comes from Tim René Salomon. He is a Rechtsreferendar (articled clerk) in Hamburg and currently assigned to the Landgericht Hamburg. The opinions expressed in this article are solely his own.
After 105 days of trial and a duration of almost 2 years, Judge Dr. Steinmetz announced the verdict and penalties on Friday, the 19th of October 2012 for the Third Grand Penal Chamber of the Landgericht Hamburg. The ten accused were found guilty of two crimes, attack on maritime traffic (§ 316c German Criminal Code – StGB) and abduction for the purpose of blackmail (§ 239a StGB). The adults were sentenced to six to seven years, while the juveniles and accused which were under 21 years of age at the time of perpetration were handed a two year penalty and will walk free after having served their time already during the extended period of pre-trial detention. It may be of even greater surprise, although the author finds this aspect to be one of the great success stories of the trial, that the three young accused behaved exemplary in pre-trial detention during which they went to school and have, after their early release, continued going to school with one of the accused even delivering his last word in the proceeding partially in German.
In the four hours of Steinmetz‘s announcement, he stressed numerous aspects of the trial, the acts committed and the political backgrounds and took the time to deliver his personal perception of what he termed an “absolutely exceptional proceeding”. This exceptionality is clear to observers everywhere. It was Germany’s first piracy trial in about 400 years, it was exceptional in the sense that so far no other trials in Germany are on the horizon on the subject matter, but it was also exceptional or better put notorious for its duration. The fact that it took two years is indeed remarkable, when looking at the rather simple case at hand:
The MV Taipan was headed from Haifa, Israel to Mombasa, Kenya and avoided the vicinity of Somalia in order to be relatively safe from pirate attacks. 500 nm from the Somali coast in the middle of the Indian Ocean on the April, 5 2010 they sighted the dhow Hud Hud, a kidnapped vessel, which was first deemed harmless and the threat it posed became apparent only when it sent two skiffs towards the container vessel Taipan. The crew of the Taipan, which now travelled full speed, was sent to the safe room and the master and two crew-members remained on the bridge. When the skiffs closed in and machine gun fire hit the Taipan, the master ordered everyone in the ship’s citadel. The pirates on the skiffs tried to climb on board, observed by a German maritime surveillance aircraft, and eventually succeeded. The individual role of each accused could not be ascertained with the necessary certainty, but it is documented that the pirates changed the vessel’s course to Somalia and destroyed the GPS antenna to complicate the tracking of the Taipan. After the Taipan’s master Eggers noticed this, he blacked out the vessel from the citadel to stop its travel, knowing that the Netherlands Navy frigate HNLMS Tromp was near, although the attack took place outside of the area under the EU ATALANTA mandate. During the following four hours the pirates unsuccessfully searched for the safe room until soldiers from the Netherlands Navy boarded the Taipan and apprehended ten suspects after a brief previous exchange of fire between the Tromp and the pirates. The suspects were then taken to Djibouti, flown to the Netherlands and were eventually extradited to Germany, where the prosecution was conducted.
What seems to be a rather clear cut case ended up to be a very challenging and long-lasting endeavor for the Hamburg court, which has led the trial with meticulous care. The applicability of German criminal law was more or less uncomplicated, since it derives from the German flag of the Taipan (§ 4 StGB), the passive personality principle as two victims, the master Eggers and merchant seaman Preuß, were German nationals (§ 7 (2) StGB) and the universality principle, which German law applies to attacks on maritime traffic (§ 6 Nr. 3 StGB). The court could have mentioned § 3 StGB, the territoriality principle, as the blackmail was directed against a German-based company, which means that the result of the crime arguably should have occurred in Germany according to the intention of the offenders (§ 9 StGB). Also the Hamburg court is locally competent because of the Taipan‘s home port, Hamburg (§ 10 German Criminal Procedure Code – StPO), with the Grand Penal Chamber of the Landgericht being the proper instance because of the expected penalty above four years imprisonment.
At the start of the proceeding every accused was granted two lawyers to prepare and conduct their defense. The issues started early in the trial. Seeing that people under the age of fourteen cannot be held criminally liable in Germany, the court first had to conduct medical exams to verify the claims of some of the accused that they were below this threshold or were at least under 18 or 21 respectively, rendering the juvenile code applicable. Two expert witnesses were heard until this issue was resolved with the necessary certainty. Moreover, during the trial, witnesses were heard e.g. on the situation in Somalia and the causes of piracy, the responsible captain of the Netherlands Navy testified and the master of the Taipan as well as his second officer also gave evidence. Some of the accused chose to make statements themselves during various stages of the trial, some admitting their participation in the act, while incriminating others, some claiming that they were forced to partake in the attack or at least deceived into participation. While the court was unable to bring to the light how exactly the pirate group conducted the attack, the declarations by the accused led to some insights into the act, although any allegations of force or deceit were held to have been unconvincing, since sufficient evidence pointed to the fact that all of the accused participated voluntarily. Consequently, the court saw an attack on maritime traffic and the abduction for purposes of blackmail as given in this case. The fact that the victims were in the safe room did not prevent the abduction from being successful in a legal sense, since the victims were in fact under the control of the pirates, who controlled the entire vessel.
This led the court to a possible penalty of 5-15 years imprisonment for the adults. In weighing the facts and background of the case to find a just penalty, the court stressed especially the danger of the act, the heavy weaponry used, the damage dealt to the vessel and the high criminal energy, but also the situation in Somalia under which the accused grew up, the fact that the accused were only small fish in a criminal network, the long pre-trial detention periods, the fact that there were no complaints against the accused during this detention and the short duration of the abduction. In doing so, it arrived at substantially shorter penalties than the state attorneys requested in this case.
In its concluding remarks, the court stressed that the trial was surely not able to prevent piracy or deter future perpetrators, but it also underlined that the trial was necessary with regard to the individual perpetrators and in order to communicate to the victims that the crime committed against them was punished. The duration of the trial was certainly longer than necessary. It was criticized by the court that the defense attorneys delayed the trial substantially, which is probably true. Although they merely used the means given to them by German criminal procedural law, some of their requests seemed far-fetched, e.g. the proposal for the court to travel to Somalia to see what life is like there, the proposition, the court should pay bribes in order to obtain witness statements from Somalia, a challenge against the court for bias, because the proceedings started one hour later than originally announced one day, or even the request to lock the captain of the Netherlands Navy, the person responsible for freeing the Taipan, in coercive detention, because he did not give evidence with regard to classified matters.
What remains for the international community? Surely, piracy trials need not last two years to be fair, but this trial shows that granting an effective defense also means trials tend to last longer. Against this backdrop, the ongoing trials in Kenya and the Seychelles, which last only much shorter and which, in case of the Seychelles, have featured one defense attorney for up to 14 accused show what happens when no effective defense is guaranteed. A similarly dramatic contrast is to be found in the way the issue of age was handled in the German trial versus how it is handled in e.g. the Seychelles. While the court in Hamburg went to great lengths to estimate as precise as possible the age of the accused, in the Seychelles, age has up to now not even been a criterion which lead the courts to distinguish between adults and juveniles with regard to the applicable penalties. Expecting the same diligence, which was used in the German proceeding everywhere in the world, would probably be a rule-of-law-overkill, but to some extent the German trial has thrown into sharp relief the conduct of trials elsewhere in the world.