Weekly Piracy Review: International Cooperation

This week the 8th Heads of Asian Coast Guard Agencies Meeting convened in New Delhi. Defense Minister A.K. Antony asserted India’s commitment to bolstering security against a myriad of threats in the Indian Ocean, and specifically addressed the continued need for anti-piracy efforts. Antony emphasized the need for cooperation among countries to implement international laws in the region in order to combat the ever-changing effects of problems such as maritime piracy.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) began a maritime forum in Manila on Wednesday, and is scheduled to run through today. Topics for discussion included maritime security and piracy. In addition to discussion regarding territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea, the members are likely considering an initiative proposed by the Philippines to facilitate information exchange and sharing among nations. The hope is that this exchange will provide timely information to allow law enforcement agencies to effectively combat security threats such as piracy.

The Indian government authorized training of Navy Special Forces to deploy Marine Commando squads on merchant ships. These squads will be authorized to carry long-range weapons, and will travel with ships in the Indian Ocean extending to the sea around Somalia in an effort to alleviate piracy concerns. Currently merchant ships in the area rely on private security companies to prevent successful piracy efforts in taking hostages and seizing cargo. So far the reliance on private security guards has been effective, as no ship with armed guards has been successfully hijacked. This situation is by no means perfect, as the level of training and experience of these private guards is widely varied, and can lead to uncertainty and nervousness when the guards are thrust into a hostile situation. As India begins to allow trained military on-board merchant vessels it shall be seen whether this will be an effective approach.

Weekly Piracy Review – Chinese and Malay Prosecutions

This week Matteo blogged about Burmese drug runner Naw Kahm and his gang pleading guilty in court in China last week to charges for their attack on Chinese boat crews on the Mekong river in the Golden Triangle area where the borders of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand come together.

7 Somalis are facing Piracy charges in Malaysia source:BBC News

It was also widely reported this week that the number of attacks by Somali pirates on commercial vessels is so far decreased this year from the numbers seen between 2009 and 2011 (46 and 47 vessels were hijacked in 2009 and 2010 respectively, and in 2011 a record 176 vessels were attacked – though only 25 were commandeered). So far in 2012 Somali pirates have seized only five vessels. It would be rash, however, to assume that this indicates the era of Somali piracy is coming to an end. According to the EU Navy, Somali pirates still hold seven ships and 177 crewmembers. Additionally, the monsoon season in the Arabian Sea, which generally limits the movement of ships in the area, is nearly over. With calmer seas ahead it will likely be crucial that the cooperative military efforts, increased communication between merchant ships and patrols, and heightened defenses and vigilance on the ships in the area remain in place.

Finally, there were important new developments in the prosecution of seven suspected Somali pirates being held in Malaysia occurred on September 26. After extensive delays in the trial proceedings due to efforts to procure attorneys and interpreters for the Somali defendants in Malaysia, on Wednesday, prosecutors offered a plea bargain to the seven pirates suspected of hijacking the MT Bunga Laurel in the Arabian Sea. Originally charged with firing at Malaysian armed forces while committing a robbery, an offense punishable by death, the seven defendants now have the opportunity to plead to guilty to lesser charges. The bargain offered is to enter a guilty plea for using weapons with the intent to prevent arrest, which carries a maximum sentence in Malaysia of 14 years imprisonment.

These seven men are charged with attacking the Malaysian tanker in the Gulf of Aden in January of 2011. While en route to Singapore the tanker, which was carrying oil worth an estimated $10 million, was attacked by a group of pirates. Allegedly, the men suddenly boarded the tanker at night, armed with AK47s. The 23 members of the crew locked themselves in a safe room on board and activated an emergency distress signal, which was picked up by a Malaysian Naval vessel patrolling the Gulf at the time. Two hours later the vessel, along with a Malaysian attack helicopter, arrived at the commandeered MT Bunga Laurel. After a shootout between the Malaysian armed forces and the seven pirates on board the ship, all seven were taken into custody.

So often it is the case that those suspected of piracy are released after being apprehended, as it is difficult to locate a court where they may be tried. After rejecting a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the events took place in international waters, the State of Malaysia asserts jurisdiction over these men based on the fact that the alleged acts of the accused of threatened the security of Malaysian citizens i.e. jurisdiction was based on the protective principle.

The trial has been put on hold until October 8, 2012 to allow the suspects a chance to determine whether they will accept the plea bargain offered to them this past week. Their decision will likely result in further questions of the application of Malaysian law to Somali citizens, whether they decide to settle or seek trial. We will provide updates in future Weekly Piracy Reviews.