Putting political convenience aside, pirates are simply not terrorists

Jon Bellish is a Project Officer at the Oceans Beyond Piracy project in Boulder, Colorado (though all of his views are his own), and he has experience in United States piracy trials. He just got on Twitter. Cross-posted at The View from Above.

Pirates of Terrorists? Either way PCASPs are on board

While running through my piracy news roundup yesterday morning, I came across this piece by Robert Young Pelton of Somalia Report. In it, Pelton criticizes a report by Australia’s Lowy Institute that deals with the use of privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP).

I took particular interest in a small tangent within Pelton’s piece that reflects an incorrect sentiment that I have seen repeated many times by non-attorneys (and even by some attorneys): that modern pirates should be considered terrorists.

As Pelton’s Somalia Report piece primarily concerns PCASP, the terrorism issue is only mentioned in a passing parenthetical:

“Pirates are criminals, (never terrorists because that would prevent the payment of ransoms) so it makes sense that a direct response by putting armed guards on ships was the most logical and so far, the most effective response to the pirate attacks.”

From this statement, I gather that Mr. Pelton is of the view that a key reason that the global anti-terrorism network has not been brought to bear against Somali pirates is that such an arrangement would force states to “negotiate with terrorists” once the pirates have seized the vessel and taken hostages. He appears to lament this fact. A similar view has been expressed by former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and others who argue that relaxed rules concerning due process and state sovereignty as they are applied to terrorists would make the piracy fight a much easier one to win.

The oft-expressed desire to equate pirates with terrorists likely stems from several superficial similarities between the two groups. First, as Ambassador Bolton points out, “the same crippling evidentiary and procedural constraints” apply to both terrorists and pirates. Also, both groups consist of non-state actors operating in a truly international fashion to the detriment of the broader international community. Finally, both groups tend to base their operations in the Middle East/North Africa region.

Yet international law is clear as to the respective motives necessary to make one a terrorist or a pirate, and the facts on the ground suggest that, no matter how convenient it may be from a policy standpoint, pirates are not terrorists.

Judge Antonio Cassese, presiding over the Appeals Chamber at Special Tribunal for Lebanon, announced last year that a definition of terrorism has emerged under customary international law. Included in this definition is the requirement that the terrorist has “the intent to spread fear among the population (which would generally entail the creation of public danger) or directly or indirectly coerce a national or international authority to take some action, or to refrain from taking it.”

Conversely, it is well-documented that, although piratical intent is not limited to the desire to rob, for an act to be considered piratical, it must be committed for private ends. This requirement is explicitly laid out in UNCLOS art. 101, as well as its predecessor, 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas.

A terrorist’s intent must be to incite mass fear or coerce a government, both purely political motives; a pirate’s motive is strictly limited to making money.

In a smart piece here on piracy-law.com couching this definitional issue in terms of a potential defense available to alleged pirates, Roger Phillips rightly notes that, although in theory it is possible to have both political and pecuniary motives, the political motive appears absent in Somali pirates, who choose not to attack well-protected ships or kill hostages simply because it would be less profitable to do so. It seems like a stretch to argue that the pirates’ modus operandi of attacking a privately-owned ship in the middle of the ocean is somehow carried out in order to coerce a government or frighten the public at large by placing them in danger.

Though Roger covered it thoroughly, this definitional point bears repeating because the terrorist theme has gained so much traction in non-legal commentary on the issue of maritime piracy. As tempting as it is to “talk tough” about pirates and the international community’s response to piracy by evoking the specter of terrorism, there is very little merit to the claim that the two terms can, at least presently, be used interchangeably to describe Somali pirates or their West African counterparts.

Respect for the rule of law – apart from being perennial advice given by developed countries to countries like Somalia – requires taking the law as it is written (or trying to change it through legitimate processes) rather than molding it to fit one’s immediate policy preferences. Unless evidence of pirates taking a less profitable course in favor of a strategy with large political payoff emerges – or the definitions of piracy and/or terrorism change – the “pirates as terrorists” slogan will continue to be just that – a slogan.

The Mistreatment of Somalis Accused of Piracy

This guest commentary, cross-posted at ilawyerblog, is by Rachel Lindon, who has represented Somalis charged with piracy in legal proceedings in France. An English version is available here. We have previously discussed piracy trials in France, here and here.

Three of the six Somalis charged with taking the crew of Le Ponant hostage walk along a wall of La Sante jailhouse in Paris on 15 June 2012, a day after being released from prison (Photo: THOMAS COEX/AFP/GettyImages)

Deux procès se sont tenus à ce jour en France, à l’encontre de somaliens accusés d’actes de piraterie au large des côtes somaliennes. Lors du premier procès, qui s’est tenu en novembre 2011, dans l’affaire dite du Carré d’As, sur les six personnes accusées, une a été acquittée, et les cinq autres ont été condamnées à des peines de 4 à 8 années d’emprisonnement. Le Parquet ayant interjeté appel, cette décision n’est pas définitive. Lors du deuxième procès, qui s’est tenu en juin 2012, dans l’affaire dite du Ponant, sur les six personnes accusées, deux ont été acquittées, et les quatre autres ont été condamnées à des peines de 4 à 10 années d’emprisonnement. Cette décision est devenue définitive, en l’absence d’appel des parties. Ainsi, à ce jour, quatre somaliens se retrouvent libres en France : trois qui ont été acquittés et souffert pendant plusieurs années de détention provisoire indue et arbitraire, et un dont  la détention provisoire abusivement longue de quatre années a couvert sa peine (la France, régulièrement condamnée par la Cour Européenne des Droits de l’Homme pour des durées de détention trop longues, a établi un funeste record mondial en matière de détention provisoire de supposés pirates somaliens…). Après avoir été interpellés en territoire somalien (territoire maritime ou terrestre selon les cas), transférés en France, quelles ont été les conditions des détentions provisoires des somaliens pendant les longs mois d’enquêtes, et qu’a-t-il été prévu à leur sortie ?

 LE TRAITEMENT PAR LA FRANCE DES SOMALIENS EN DETENTION

 Ces douze somaliens, coupables ou non, ont été arrachés de leurs terres pour être transférés dans des geôles d’un pays qui leur était inconnu. Déracinés brutalement, ils ont été incarcérés dans des conditions devenues presqu’inhumaines: ne parlant que le somalien, et devant être séparés les uns des autres pendant l’enquête, ils n’ont pu communiquer avec personne pendant des années, sauf pendant les interrogatoires chez le juge d’instruction. Les avocats ont systématiquement sollicité les services d’un interprète, pour les parloirs. Les magistrats ont également sollicité les interprètes pour tous les actes d’instruction. Pourtant, ces douze somaliens n’ont jamais bénéficié du truchement d’un interprète, en détention, tant pour les actes médicaux, parfois lourds, que pour les commissions disciplinaires, en violation du principe du respect de la dignité humaine du prisonnier, reconnu par la Cour européenne des Droits de l’Homme (RAFFRAY TADDEI C. France, 21 décembre 2010, §50) et les règles minima pour le traitement des détenus, telles que définies par le Haut Commissariat des Nations Unies aux droits de l’homme (article 36§2). Nombre d’entre eux ont été victimes de violences de la part de codétenus, d’autant plus qu’ils étaient particulièrement isolés, et l’Administration Pénitentiaire française semble avoir trop souvent manqué à son devoir d’enquête, en violation de la jurisprudence de la CEDH (PREMININY C. RUSSIE, 10 février 2011).

 A ces violations s’ajoutaient les difficultés et l’isolement propres à leur situation de ressortissants somaliens : ils ne recevaient pas de deniers de l’extérieur (alors qu’il est connu dans les prisons françaises qu’il faut un pécule minimal pour survivre, louer un téléviseur, et s’acheter de la nourriture), ils ne recevaient aucune visite et que très rarement des nouvelles de leurs familles, un courrier annuellement tout au plus, alors que la plupart étaient mariés et pères de familles. Ces détentions provisoires furent d’une telle violence que nombre d’entre eux ont souffert de problèmes psychologiques graves, ont été internés dans les hôpitaux psychiatriques de l’Administration Pénitentiaire, au point qu’aujourd’hui, certains, même libres, doivent encore faire l’objet d’un suivi psychiatrique.

 LE TRAITEMENT PAR LA FRANCE DES SOMALIENS HORS DE DETENTION

 L’espoir du procès et de la fin de la dureté de la détention n’a été que de courte durée pour ceux qui ont été libérés : relâchés quelques heures après les délibérés, en pleine nuit, dans Paris, l’Administration pénitentiaire française leur a remis, outre leurs ballots de vêtements accumulés pendant la détention grâce au secours populaire, un kit indigent comprenant un ticket de métro, cinq tickets restaurant et une carte de téléphone… La France n’a pas estimé utile de prévoir ce qu’il adviendrait de ces hommes, appréhendés à plus de 6.000 km, reconnus innocents pour trois d’entre eux, après la détention. Ils ne peuvent, qu’ils soient innocents ou coupables, retourner dans leur pays, du fait des  mesures de rétorsion encourues. En effet, la justice  a exigé une coopération complète, en les sommant d’indiquer les noms des puissants chefs pirates qui agissent en Somalie.

 Ces véritables coupables, ces chefs de guerre exploitant la misère des somaliens, et possédant eux mêmes des biens immobiliers issus de la piraterie, aussi bien à Nairobi qu’à Londres, sont toujours actifs sur place, sans jamais avoir été inquiétés, la France se contentant de lampistes ou d’innocents, qui aujourd’hui risquent la peine de mort en cas de retour. Les somaliens acquittés, et ceux coupables mais ayant coopéré, libres ou encore détenus, sont par conséquent contraints de demander l’asile en France, puisqu’ils craignent d’être persécutés dans leur pays et de ne peuvent se réclamer de sa protection. puisque « craignant avec raison d’être persécutés du fait de (…) (leur) appartenance à un certain groupe social ou de (leurs) opinions politiques, se trouvent hors du pays dont (ils ont) la nationalité et qui ne (peuvent) ou, du fait de cette crainte, ne (veulent) se réclamer de la protection de ce pays ».

 Mais pas plus qu’un retour dans leur pays n’est possible, une vie en France ne l’est. Lâchés dans les rues de Paris aussi brutalement qu’ils avaient été appréhendés en Somalie, ils n’ont eu de toits pour dormir et se nourrir que grâce à la solidarité de la société civile, compatriotes, conseils et interprète, puis d’associations pour le logement… Pêcheurs somaliens, parlant peu ou pas le français, ils se retrouvent à nouveau dans un dénuement extrême, mais dans un environnement inconnu, et définitivement séparés des leurs.

 Leur situation ubuesque ayant interpellé certaines personnes, les trois somaliens du dossier du Ponant, sortis de détention le 15 juin 2012, à 3 heures du matin, ont finalement trouvé une association pour les héberger temporairement, dans l’attente prochaine de places en Centre d’Accueil pour Demandeurs d’Asile (leur situation particulière a permis que leur demande de logement soit considérée comme prioritaire). Ils recevront également l’aide financière conférée par l’Etat français pour tout demandeur d’asile, quel qu’il soit, de l’ordre de 400 euros mensuellement. Enfin, pour ceux définitivement acquittés, une requête en référé d’indemnisation de détention arbitraire est en cours. La justice aura à quantifier 50 mois de détention arbitraire et des vies définitivement brisées…

 Pendant ce temps, le sort de ceux encore détenus est loin d’être résolu, car condamnés à des peines de 4 à 10 années d’emprisonnement (peines qui pourraient paraître légères, mais le peuple français, au travers de ses jurés, a pris en compte la particularité des crimes et de la situation sur place), ils sortiront bientôt de détention.

 Dans un mois, le mineur du dossier du Carré d’As, âgé de 17 ans au moment des faits et donc de son incarcération, condamné à 4 années d’emprisonnement, aura accompli l’intégralité de sa peine. Il devra par conséquent être libéré. Encore une fois, rien n’est prévu pour sa sortie : il ne pourra quitter le territoire français, car il se doit d’attendre l’appel de son affaire (qui se déroulera probablement au printemps 2013). Mais pour autant, il ne sera pas régulier sur le territoire, et ne pourra espérer aucune aide au logement… Il sera hors des murs de FLEURY MEROGIS, sans  argent, sans famille et sans papiers, mais non expulsable et contraint de rester. L’Etat français, qui a tant voulu protéger ses ressortissants navigant dans le Golf d’Aden, va ainsi laisser un jeune mineur, totalement isolé, ne parlant que quelques mots de français appris au contact des autres détenus  et ne connaissant de notre territoire que nos maisons d’arrêt, errer dans nos rues, le temps de l’audiencement de l’appel interjeté par le Parquet… La France ne lui aura appris ni sa langue ni un métier, seulement à survivre dans une maison d’arrêt, puis survivre dans une ville si éloignée de sa vie passée…

 Les somaliens libérés se heurteront ensuite à la rigueur administrative française : Les services d’insertion et de probation des maisons d’arrêts appliquent leur règles : sans papiers, pas d’aide à la sortie. Les services des demandeurs d’asiles les leurs : à la suite d’une demande d’asile (à effectuer dans les limites des règles très strictes), et sans s’attarder sur leur situation pénale, le logement n’est conféré qu’à certaines conditions. Les services du Ministère de la Justice demandent que l’on applique les leurs : il ne reste qu’à demander une indemnisation pour ceux innocentés, et sinon, cela ne les regarde plus… La France se comporte comme la communauté internationale : appliquons des règles abstraites, à la Somalie, ou à ses ressortissants transférés en France, sans qu’il soit évoqué le particularisme de leurs situations…

 Le combat contre la piraterie et les déclarations d’intention aux visées électoralistes autorisent-ils la « patrie des droits de l’homme » à bafouer ces droits et à jeter dans nos geôles puis dans nos rues des hommes ? Le traitement que ces hommes, accusés de piraterie, innocents ou coupables, ont subi en France leur en fait regretter la Somalie, pays  sans Etat, en situation de guerre civile depuis 20 ans, mais qu’ils ne pourront, tout comme leur famille, plus jamais retrouver.

The Illegality of a General Pirate Amnesty

The Shiuh Fu No.1 fishing boat, pirated Christmas Day 2010; the whereabouts of the crew of 13 Chinese, 12 Vietnamese and 1 Taiwanese mariners is unknown

It is estimated that 245 hostages and 7 hijacked vessels remain in pirate hands. There exists a kind of stalemate as pirates hold prisoners and ships in Somali ports while negotiations between pirates and shipping insurance companies have slowed or broken down completely. Somalia’s presidential candidates have offered one possible solution to this stalemate. President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has said that, “Those who leave behind what they have done will be forgiven.” For his part, Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali has said that “There is no mercy for pirates, not from me, but if someone gives up and says, ‘I repent and want forgiveness’, then we have to do it.” However, a general amnesty for pirates might be illegal and, in any event, might be ineffectual.

Pursuant to UNCLOS, Article 100 “Duty to cooperate in the repression of piracy” provides that “All States shall cooperate to the fullest possible extent in the repression of piracy on the high seas or in any other place outside the jurisdiction of any State.” UNCLOS does not specifically assert there is a duty to prosecute pirates once apprehended. On this point, the International Law Commission, in its commentary to the predecessor treaty (1958 LOS treaty), has said of this provision that “Any State having an opportunity of taking measures against piracy, and neglecting to do so, would be failing in a duty laid upon it by international law.” But it also asserted that states “must be allowed a certain latitude as to the measures it should take to this end in any individual case.” It has been convincingly argued by others (namely Geib and Petrig) that prosecution is discretionary under this provision. Geib and Petrig also note that there may be an obligation to prosecute certain acts of armed robbery at sea which are in violation of the SUA Convention and the Hostages Convention. However, Somalia is not a party to either of these conventions. Therefore, a general amnesty for Somali pirates arguably would not be in violation of the duty under Article 100 of UNCLOS or other treaty obligations.

There also exists under international law, a duty to prosecute egregious human rights violations, such as genocide, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, torture, and crimes against humanity. (for a summary see this decision of the ECCC Trial Chamber). International tribunals and treaty bodies have generally held amnesties to be incompatible with this overriding duty to prosecute. In particular, the Special Court for Sierra Leone Appeals Chamber has held that blanket amnesties are impermissible under international law for universal jurisdiction crimes. The duty to prosecute arises not only from the treaty obligations taken on by states but also the egregiousness of the proscribed conduct. Based on this international norm, there may be a duty to prosecute pirates who have engaged in the practice of torturing hostages or for any other act constituting piracy if sufficiently egregious. It has been argued that piracy is not among the most egregious of international offences, but piracy consistently garners impressively long sentences and capital punishment remains a potential penalty for pirates in the United States. Based on this background, a general amnesty of pirates might run afoul of an international duty to prosecute.

One possible avenue for the provision of amnesties is discussed in the Provisional Constitution of Somalia. Article 111 provides for the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “established […] to foster national healing, reconciliation and unity”. It further provides the TRC’s mandate shall include “bearing witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations”. It is not clear if the drafters intended this provision to encompass possible amnesties for pirates. However, the language of the Article is sufficiently broad to apply to such crimes. Any such amnesties would have to be approved by the TRC composed of traditional elders, members of the Federal Parliament, respected members of civil society, judges and security personnel. Insofar as the TRC could dispense individual amnesties based on the particular circumstances of a case, it might not run afoul of an international duty to prosecute.

This brings us to two very practical matters. Even if such amnesties were granted by the Somali government, would they be respected by other states were they to gain custody of these individuals? Any state may prosecute Somali pirates based on universal jurisdiction. States whose vessels and nationals have been victim of pirate attack would have to exercise a great deal of restraint to not prosecute such individuals due to an amnesty dispensed by the Somali government.

Finally, there is no guarantee that an amnesty for Somali pirates would be effective at definitely quashing the phenomenon in the long term. Nigeria provides a helpful example (see here for background). In 2009, the Nigerian government offered many of the militants/pirates in the Niger Delta an amnesty and stipends if they agreed to stop attacks of oil platforms and other interests. The cost of this amnesty programme is immense, estimated to be $405 million in 2012 alone. But not all ex-militants have found new jobs and there is an increasing danger that the attacks on off-shore oil interests may reignite. For Somalia, the lessons are two-fold: (1) an amnesty must be accompanied by alternative job training and job creation to be effective and (2) such a programme is potentially very expensive and perhaps outside of its means.

Negotiator Sentenced to Multiple Life Terms – SCOTUS on the horizon

Defendant Mohamed Salid Shibin appears in court

As we previously discussed here and here, Mohammad Saaili Shibin has been convicted for his role as a pirate negotiator in two separate incidents. During the trial, there was evidence that the hostages were tortured, but Shibin’s main role was to negotiate a ransom payment. Shibin has now been sentenced to 12 life terms and his attorney has promised to appeal. Two issues could lead to overturning Shibin’s convictions and might soon reach the Supreme Court.

First, Shibin’s attorney has stated that piracy can only occur if someone commits robbery at sea. In other words, the issue is whether piracy under the 18 USC 1651 (which incorporates the law of nations) is an evolving or a static concept. If it is a static concept, then a robbery was necessary to complete the offence. Since Shibin never boarded the hijacked yacht, he did not commit a robbery and his conviction for piracy, the basis for the life terms, could not stand. If, however, piracy is an evolving concept, then the UNCLOS definition would prevail and, because it does not require a robbery, Shibin’s conviction would stand.

Shibin’s appeal will first be heard by a 3-judge panel of the 4th Circuit. Another panel of the same court has ruled, in U.S. v. Abdi Wali Dire, that piracy is an evolving concept. A petition for rehearing was subsequently denied in that case, and the defence is filing an appeal with the US Supreme Court. Shibin could appeal the same issue to the 4th Circuit and might win if a different panel hears the case. However, if his appeal is denied, which is likely, he will have to take the case to the US Supreme Court as well.

The second issue that might result in overturning his convictions is whether Shibin’s actions in Somali territory can constitute piracy under the law of nations. The Federal Court in the DC Circuit recently held, in U.S. v. Ali, that the international crime of piracy can only be committed on the high seas. Therefore, negotiating a ransom for pirated hostages on land or within a state’s territorial waters does not constitute piracy. There is a healthy debate as to the correctness of this decision. See here and here. Nonetheless, it appears that Shibin only boarded the pirated vessel in Somali territorial waters. The U.S. Attorney prosecuting Shibin said that Shibin was a hostage negotiator operating from within Somalia, and it is reported that Shibin only boarded the pirated ship after it entered Somali waters.Therefore, if the Ali-rationale were applied in Shibin’s appeal, his convictions would be overturned. Even though Shibin did not appear to make this particular argument at trial, if it is determined that piracy under the law of nations does not include actions from Somali territory, universal jurisdiction would not permit the U.S. to pursue this prosecution. Therefore, this is a jurisdictional issue that can be raised for the first time on appeal.

Members of Ogoni Community interested by Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell Source: Amnesty International

There you have it: two issues that could invalidate Shibin’s convictions. Either or both of these issues could reach the Supreme Court, perhaps not in Shibin’s case, but possibly in U.S. v. Dire. The justices may be inclined to grant certiorari as a rhetorical counterpoint to Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell which is on the court’s docket for the next term and will require the court to interpret the statutory language “the law of nations” as part of the Alien Tort Statute. The piracy cases might be helpful to those who would argue that universal jurisdiction only applies to those offenses originally contemplated and discussed by the First Congress (when the piracy law and the Alien Tort Statute were passed). According to this view, piracy would satisfy the requirement, but relatively newer crimes such as crimes against humanity would not.

Somalia’s New Constitution (what it does and doesn’t do for piracy)

Somalia’s Official Emblem adopted by the 2012 Provisional Constitution

On 1 August, delegates to the Somalia’s National Constituent Assembly adopted a provisional constitution. The document must still be approved by a majority vote of the electorate in a referendum. Nonetheless, the Provisional Constitution marks an important step towards the establishment of a representative federal government in Somalia. Further, it has significant ramifications for the prosecution of piracy.

Article 140 of the Provisional Constitution requires the Somali Federal Government to respect all prior treaty obligations. This includes UNCLOS which a preceding government signed in 1982 and ratified on 24 July 1989. Of course, UNCLOS sets forth the definition of the international crime of piracy, but in the event of any lacunae in that definition, Article 40 of the Provisional Constitution permits reference to Shariah Law, international law and decisions of courts in other countries as persuasive authority. Therefore, reference may be made to recent piracy judgements in Seychelles, Netherlands, France, and the U.S. among others.

In addition, the Provisional Constitution provides extensive individual rights for criminal defendants. These include a fundamental right to be brought before a capable court within 48 hours of arrest (see Article 35(5)). If pirates are arrested at sea it may be impracticable to bring them before a judge within that time frame. In such cases, some remedy, in the form of a reduced sentence (upon eventual conviction) or the dropping of charges (in extreme cases) will have to be considered. An alternative would be to perform an arraignment (first appearance) aboard the capturing vessel. But for this to be plausible, it might be necessary to bring a Somali judge onto the naval vessel. If the arraignment were performed by a judge from a foreign nation (e.g. a national of the naval power that captured the pirates), the judge would not have the power to put the Accused on notice of charges under Somali law.

Article 35 also incorporates the principle of nullum crimen sine lege (prohibition against ex post facto legislation). In the case of piracy, this should not prove controversial as Somalia ratified UNCLOS, which defines piracy, in 1989. However, the principle of nulla poena sine lege (no punishment without law) is also incorporated within this concept. Thus, without a specific sentencing regime in force for piracy, one could argue that an Accused did not have notice of the potential range of penalties available for those convicted of piracy thereby rendering any punishment impermissible. One might look to prior Somali legislation to fill this gap. But as Matteo has previously noted, Somalia’s prior anti-piracy legislation lacked a number of important provisions and was inconsistent with customary international law. The new Somali Federal Parliament will soon have an opportunity to remedy these problems as the Constitution sets forth a list of priority legislation to be enacted by the Federal Parliament and anti-piracy legislation appears 16th on this list. See Schedule One (d).