Broadcast of Mekong Pirate’s Execution May Have Violated Chinese Law

You likely have heard about the execution of Naw Kham, the Mekong Pirate found guilty of killing 13 Chinese in the Golden Triangle. See our prior coverage here. The moments leading up to the execution were televised live in China, although the execution itself was not. Siweiluozi’s Blog points out this violates the spirit if not the letter of Chinese law meant to curb such public executions.

This prohibition was subsequently written into China’s Criminal Procedure Law, and the relevant Supreme People’s Court interpretation on implementation of the death penalty also prohibits “other acts that degrade the personality of criminals” (其他有辱罪犯人格的行为).

Siweiluozi’s Blog also points to a commentary in the Changjiang Daily, the official “organ” of the party in Wuhan, providing the following critique:

Perhaps it is not illegal in China to broadcast live as the condemned are transferred to the execution ground, but I still oppose broadcasting live. Before, China used to have so-called public sentencing rallies and parade bound criminals in the streets for public viewing. Now, live broadcast of the transfer is no different in any real sense and is even more repulsive. Why?
It is because the live broadcast voluntarily and consciously revived these kinds of backward, barbaric scenes lacking in any modern notion of rights or rule of law. The live broadcast even delivered these scenes right in front of your eyes, so that you didn’t even need to go out of doors or be in the streets: you could see the barbarity and backwardness from your own home. You could say, in other words, that this live broadcast was itself barbaric and backwards, displaying no progress at all.

The “Private Ends” Requirement of UNCLOS in the 9th Circuit: Are Sea Shepherds Pirates?

Sea Sheperd Conservation Society Vessel

The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit recently discussed the “private ends” requirement of the crime of piracy under international law.  In Cetacean v. Sea Shepherds, Judge Kozinski reversed the lower court and enjoined the Sea Shepherds, an international non-profit, marine wildlife conservation organization, from coming within 500 meters of any Japanese whaling vessels.  Judge Kozinski held that Sea Shepherds satisfied the “private ends” requirement of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and that they could accordingly be considered pirates under international law, regardless of their political and non-pecuniary motivation.    According to Judge Kozinski:

“You don’t need a peg leg or an eye patch. When you ram ships; hurl glass containers of acid; drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders; launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks; and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate, no matter how high-minded you believe your purpose to be.” (p. 2).

Scholars interested in the field of maritime piracy have been most fascinated by Judge Kozinski’s discussion of the “private ends” requirement.  Many have already debated Judge Kozinski’s determination that Sea Shepherds could be considered pirates under UNCLOS, with both enthusiasm and disagreement.  Eugene Kontorovich on Volokh Conspiracy agreed with Judge Kozinski and argued that the relevant distinction under UNCLOS is between private ends committed by private parties, and other acts committed by governments.  Thus, according to Kontorovich,

“It does not turn on whether the actor’s motives are pecuniary, political, operating under mistake of fact, or simply insane. Private ends are those ends held by private parties. The converse is also true: a government-owned ship in government service cannot commit piracy even if it attacks another vessel solely to enrich itself.”

According to Kontorovich, as long as the Sea Shepherds were acting as private parties, and not governmental agents, their actions would satisfy the “private ends” requirement, despite the fact that the Sea Shepherds’ goals may be purely political (“private” clearly means ‘non-governmental,’ rather than selfish or not selfish”).   Kevin Jon Heller on Opinio Juris disagreed, and argued instead that the “private ends” requirement of UNCLOS excludes all politically motivated acts, not simply those committed by governments or governmental agents.  According to Heller,

“politically-motivated acts of violence on the high seas were not traditionally considered piracy under international law, but were instead simply criminal acts that the offended state could prosecute as it saw fit.”

Pursuant to Heller’s argument, as long as the Sea Shepherds were acting toward a political goal, their actions could not satisfy the “private ends” requirement and they could not be considered pirates under UNCLOS.  Both Kontorovich and Heller would apparently agree that the Shepherds’ acts could be considered acts of maritime violence under the SUA Convention.

Finally, Jon Bellish on EjilTalk! acknowledged the debate between Kontorovich and Heller, and noted that both positions had significant support in the drafting history of UNCLOS and in other international law documents.  Bellish also argued that the question of what exactly the “private ends” requirement constitutes today was more nuanced than either Kontorovich or Heller seem to acknowledge:

“The outer bounds of the private ends requirement are relatively clear. On one end, proving animus furandi – or the intention to steal for personal pecuniary gain – is not required to satisfy the private ends requirement. On the other end, it is undisputed that acts of violence committed on the high seas under state authority fail to satisfy the private ends requirement. But there is significant room between these two extremes. Just exactly where the line should be drawn between these two extremes, and on which side of that line the Sea Shepherds fall, is a more difficult issue.”

Bellish concludes by agreeing with Kontorovich, and Judge Kozinski.  Bellish notes that if one were to adopt a narrow interpretation of the “private ends” requirement and to inquire in each instance about the perpetrator’s subjective intent (whether it was private/pecuniary or political), then one would have to exclude acts of Somali “pirates” from piracy, because their alleged motivation was announced as protecting their waters from illegal fishing exploitation and environmental dumping.

While it is difficult to disagree with this argument, it is equally difficult to conclude that Sea Shepherds easily fit within the traditional paradigm of piracy.  They do not.  Their goals truly are political and non-pecuniary, and their intent belongs more in the “political” category rather than the “private” one.  The Ninth Circuit may have adopted a too formalistic approach and a too wide reading of UNCLOS in holding that they were pirates.  When interpreting UNCLOS, modern-day judges may need to resort to a more flexible approach.  Instead of adopting a strict private/public distinction when interpreting the “private ends” requirement, it would be possible for judges to adopt a presumption that private parties act for private ends, unless such parties can demonstrate convincingly that their acts had a bona fide political purpose.  Under this approach, Sea Shepherds, as private parties, would first be classified as acting for private ends, but presumably they would be able to demonstrate that their purpose is purely political.  Sea Shepherds are not pirates, although their acts of violence at sea may be reprehensible.  Kevin Jon Heller, in the above-mentioned post, quoted the following language, from an essay by His Excellency Jose Luis Jesus, a judge on the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea:

“This requirement seems to exclude sheer politically motivated acts directed at ships or their crew from the definition of piracy. In the past the issue of whether a politically motivated act was a piratical act drew substantial support from some publicists and governments. The piracy rules, specifically tailored to handle piratical acts, were in the past stretched in their interpretation and application by some national jurisdiction and by some commentators to also cover, by default, other unlawful, politically related, acts against ships and persons on board, such as terrorist acts….Today, however, especially after the adoption of the SUA Convention, it would appear to be a lost cause to continue insisting on considering such a politically-motivated act as piracy. If, in the past, politically-motivated acts of violence or depredation against ships and persons aboard, short of being piracy, were left out of the international regulatory system, as it were, today they are covered by Article 3 of the said SUA Convention.  Likewise, the ‘private ends’ criterion seems to exclude acts of violence and depredation exerted by environmentally-friendly groups or persons, in connection with their quest for marine environment protection. This seems to be clearly a case in which the “private ends’’ criterion seems to be excluded. “

I agree with Judge Jesus, and Kevin Jon Heller, and would encourage courts to adopt a more flexible approach in their interpretation of the “private ends” requirement.

New Facilitators Paper Available on SSRN

After months of blogging about a high seas requirement for facilitators of piracy, I have posted a law review article on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Around 2005, maritime piracy began to make a troubling resurgence three quarters of a century after consensus had been reached that the age of piracy had “permanently ended.” It returned, however, in a slightly different form, with pirates relying much more on land-based facilitators than did their historical counterparts. Maritime piracy’s renaissance made pressing the question of whether an inciter or intentional facilitator of maritime piracy must be physically present on the high seas while facilitating in order to be subject to universal jurisdiction. This article undertakes a thorough analysis of the text, statutory context, drafting history, and policy impetus behind UNCLOS art. 101 as it relates to universal jurisdiction over facilitators. It finds that the preponderance of the evidence suggests that a high seas requirement in fact exists for facilitators of piracy jure gentium. From there, the article considers the likely implications of such a requirement on modern facilitators of maritime piracy. Through the lens of political economy, the article concludes that universal jurisdiction piracy prosecutions pose something of a commons problem or, alternatively, a public goods problem. Because rational actors operating in a market tend to internalize externalities and under-produce public goods, theory suggests that universal jurisdiction prosecutions should be quite rare. The article goes on to find that state practice shows such prosecutions to be quite rare in fact. The article thus concludes that there is a high seas requirement for inciters and intentional facilitators of piracy jure gentium, but that this requirement will have few practical implications on impunity for facilitators.

The full article can be accessed here. Any substantive criticism is most welcome at jonbellish at gmail dot com. For those interested an another well developed take on the issue, I invite you to have a look at Roger’s piece, which is forthcoming in the Florida Journal of International Law.

In other piracy-related news, the Ashland defendants were convicted in a Norfolk federal district court.

Round Two for the Ashland Defendants

The trial of the remaining five pirates accused of mistaking the U.S. Navy amphibious dock landing ship Ashland for a commercial tanker and attacking it in 2010 has restarted. Initially, the trial court dismissed the charges against the defendants under the 1820 case of United States v. Smith — defining piracy as “robbery at sea” — because the defendants never boarded the ship or attempted to steal anything. However, after the 4th Circuit endorsed the UNCLOS definition of piracy in United States v. Dire, the Ashland defendants are back in court.

USS Ashland

USS Ashland entering port in Florida (U.S. Navy photo by Scott Lehr)

Here is what the Norfolk-based Virginian-Pilot had to say about the case:

Prosecutors argue the men were pirates who mistook the amphibious dock landing ship for a commercial vessel.

Defense attorneys, however, claim they were merely lost at sea and trying to get the ship’s attention.

A jury trial for five of the men started Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Norfolk. Over the next week, prosecutors are expected to call to the stand sailors who were on the Virginia Beach-based Ashland at the time of the incident and a Somali man who was on the skiff and is now cooperating with authorities.

Jama Idle Ibrahim, also known as Jaamac Ciidle, pleaded guilty in August 2010 to attempting to plunder a vessel and two related charges. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison but could have his sentence reduced.

Due to the similarities between the case of the USS Ashland and that involving the USS Nicholas (which culminated in the Dire opinion), the defendants’ overall prospects do not look strong.

Update – Le Ponant: Acquitted Somalis Obtain Compensation for Trial Detention

After their acquittal in June 2012, the two Somalis tried for the 2008 hijack of the luxury yacht Le Ponant have recently obtained financial compensation for their 4 year-long detention in France.

The two Somalis Acquitted of piracy on a subway in Paris - Le Monde

The two Somalis Acquitted of piracy on a subway in Paris – Le Monde

We have previously reported about Le Ponant trial here. Along with the 2 acquitted individuals, a third Somali was convicted to 4 years but released immediately after the verdict upon having served his sentence. We have also reported about their living conditions in France here (see also, similarly, here). In addition, 2 other accused were sentenced to 10 and 7 years of detention, respectively. We have made available the judgement in the case here. No appeal was launced by the prosecution or the defendants.

The compensation, among the first of its kind for individuals acquitted in piracy trials before various national courts of States engaged in anti-piracy acitivies off the coast of Somalia, includes 90.000 Euros each in moral damages and 3.000 and 5.000 euros each, respectively, for the loss of their salary as fishermen while in detention. The lawyers for the two Somalis have appealed the decision, seeking 450.000 Euros instead. Meanwhile, the Somalis continue to live in France, pending a decision on their request for asylum.