Pirate Victim Turned Pirate

The M/V Quest

Of the fourteen pirates indicted for the hijacking of the M/V Quest, a 58 foot yacht, and killing its occupants, four Americans on an around the world adventure, one of the pirates was not of Somali origin. Mounir Ali, 23, is a Yemeni national who was a fisherman who was himself captured by pirates.  According to a press statement from US Attorney responsible for his prosecution:

This defendant, the sole Yemeni, was part of the crew of another boat that was hijacked by a separate group of pirates some months earlier. The defendant had been taken on at least two piracy outings in his captured ship. On the second outing, the defendant was with other pirates when the Yemeni fishing boat, used as a mothership for the Quest hijacking, was captured.  The defendant transferred to the Yemeni fishing boat and then chose to go with the pirates when they located the Quest in exchange for a share of the ransom.

Mr. Ali argued that he only joined the pirates because he had no other choice. His boat was hijacked and he was promised that it would be returned if he joined in this raid. As I have previously remarked, this type of defence was common during another era of piracy. As noted here, during the 18th century, Caribbean pirates cleverly avoided conviction in British prosecutions based on a defence of impressment or duress:

Voluntary complicity with a pirate crew was important to establishing guilt. Pirates exploited this loophole by pretending to conscript seamen who joined their ranks voluntarily. Since pirates did genuinely compel some seamen to join their companies, court officials considered the impressment defense plausible.

In Mr. Ali’s case, he pleaded guilty in order to avoid the death penalty. The Judge, apparently unmoved by Mr. Ali’s claims of duress, sentenced him to life in prison.

But the defence can be successful in the right circumstances. Larger fishing vessels are regularly hi-jacked and the occupants conscripted to support piracy operations. In a recent example, the UK Navy considered the seafarers of a fishing vessel to be unworthy of prosecution even though the vessel had been used in several recent pirate attacks. They let 20 Pakistani crew go, while turning over four Somalis  to Italian authorities on suspicion of involvement in the recent attack on the Italian vessel MV Montecristo. Duress is also recognized by Article 31 of the Rome Statute which excludes criminal responsibility if:

The conduct which is alleged to constitute a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court has been caused by duress resulting from a threat of imminent death or of continuing or imminent serious bodily harm against that person or another person, and the person acts necessarily and reasonably to avoid this threat, provided that the person does not intend to cause a greater harm than the one sought to be avoided.

Duress will continue to be a common defence in future piracy trials and determining its applicability will pose a challenge to any court addressing the issue.

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