Long road to justice – The German piracy trial

 

 

 

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.

Weekly Piracy Review: Renewed Attacks

As monsoon season is coming to a close, it appears this week that pirates are returning to the waters of the Indian Ocean. On Wednesday night the ITS San Guisto, the flagship vessel of the EU Naval Forces, captured seven suspected pirates who were spotted on a small boat in the sea off the coast of Somalia. While in the area as part of a counter-piracy mission, the crew of the San Guisto noticed that the small boat was carrying a ladder and many oil drums [which were found to be full of oil and water, allowing the boat to stay in open water longer]. It is atypical for small boats to carry such large ladders; this indicated that the boat was at sea with the intent of hijacking a merchant vessel. The commander of the forces on the warship noted that this was the first sighting of a pirate vessel in these waters for more than three months.

On Thursday another seven suspected pirates were apprehended in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Somalia. After ambushing the Spanish ship Izurdia off the Horn of Africa, the skiff carrying the pirates was intercepted and boarded by a helicopter team deployed from the Dutch amphibious transport the HMS Rotterdam. The Rotterdam has patrolled the waters around the Gulf of Aden since July in an effort to ward off piracy as part of NATO’s campaign to thwart the problem in the region. As of this posting there are very few details regarding the attack carried out on the Spanish ship.

Last Friday twelve armed pirates boarded a German-owned tanker off the coast of West Africa, removing the ship’s stores of oil to their barge. These suspected pirates then held the crew for one day while they raided the ship. Before disembarking, the pirates locked all crew members in the master’s cabin. Some of the crew members did sustain minor injuries during the ordeal, but it appears that there were no hostages or casualties.

According to the ICC‘s International Maritime Bureau, so far in October there have been six reported pirate attacks or attempted attacks on merchant vessels.  These attacks have occurred off the coasts of Egypt, Somalia, Togo, the Ivory Coast, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Though maritime piracy has experienced a lull in recent months, authorities continue to urge those operating vessels in the waters of the Indian Ocean to remain vigilant against renewed attacks. At this time it appears that pirates hold eleven vessels and about 188 hostages from those vessels.

POST #100 – Developing Consensus on Specialized Piracy Chambers

It is perhaps appropriate that our 100th Post at Communis Hostis Omnium should discuss the issue of a prosecution mechanism and the Jack Lang Report as this was the same topic of our first post in January 2011. From its humble beginnings, this blog has grown in readership and gathered many contributors along the way. We will continue to provide objective analysis of the legal issues surrounding maritime piracy and hope to add some new features. In this regard, today we are introducing a feature called the Weekly Piracy Review which will provide a brief summary of the most important news events of the week and link to relevant analysis where appropriate. Our thanks and welcome to Christine Hentze for taking up this feature. Please continue reading and commenting!

Specialized Piracy Chambers

There appears to be a developing international consensus that something more than national prosecutions of pirates must be pursued in order to address the growing backlog of piracy prosecutions and to reduce the problem of catch and release. That solution appears to be a specialized piracy chamber. A specialized piracy chamber would be a court created within one or more regional states (i.e. Seychelles, Kenya, or possibly Tanzania) and would deal with every piracy prosecution referred thereto. The court would apply that state’s municipal law consistent with the applicable constitutional and statutory framework. Furthermore, the state’s criminal rules of procedure would apply, although specific rules of evidence might need to be adopted in view of its unique mandate. Two sources in particular indicate this is the solution that is gaining support.

The 2011 Digest of United States Practice in International Law (released in July 2012) sets forth the U.S. State Department’ s view as follows:

It is true that suspected pirates have been successfully prosecuted in ordinary courts throughout history. Because of this, the Administration has previously been reluctant to support the idea of creating an extraordinary international prosecution mechanism for this common crime. Instead, the Administration has focused on encouraging regional states to prosecute pirates domestically in their national courts. However, in light of the problems I’ve described to you today, the United States is now willing to consider pursuing some creative and innovative ways to go beyond ordinary national prosecutions and enhance our ability to prosecute and incarcerate pirates in a timely and cost-effective manner. We are working actively with our partners in the international community to help set the conditions for expanded options in the region. In fact, we recently put forward a joint proposal with the United Kingdom suggesting concrete steps to address some of the key challenges we continue to face.

[…]

In addition, we have suggested consideration of a specialized piracy court or chamber to be established in one or more regional states. The international community is currently considering this idea, along with similar models that would combine international and domestic elements. These ideas are under discussion both in the UN Security Council and in the Contact Group.” (emphasis added).

To provide some background, in July 2010, Jack Lang proposed 7 potential mechanisms for such prosecutions. As we noted here, a subsequent Secretary General Report of January 2012 discusses the modalities for several of these options, focusing on 4 of the 7 options. Initially, there was support from some members of the Security Council for the idea that an international tribunal should be created for the prosecution of pirates. However there was resistance from the U.S. and the U.K. based on the continued viability of national prosecutions based on universal jurisdiction. But strictly national prosecutions do have their limits as is noted by the 2011 Digest:

[M]any of the countries affected by piracy—flag states, states from where many crew members hail, and many of our European partners—have proven to lack either the capacity or the political will to prosecute cases in their national courts. Furthermore, states in the region that have accepted suspects for prosecution to date have been reluctant to take more, citing limits to their judicial and prison capacities and insufficient financial support from the international community. As a result, too many suspected pirates we encounter at sea are simply released without any meaningful punishment or prosecution, and often simply keep doing what they were doing. This is the unacceptable ‘catch and release’ situation that has been widely criticized, and for which we must find a solution.”

It further notes that:

 [W]e need to acknowledge the reality that many states, to varying degrees, have not demonstrated sustained political will to criminalize piracy under their domestic law and use such laws to prosecute those who attack their interests and incarcerate the convicted. The world’s largest flag registries—so-called “flags of convenience”—have proven either incapable or unwilling to take responsibility. And given the limited venues for prosecution, states have been reluctant to pursue prosecutions of apparent or incomplete acts of piracy, limiting our ability to prosecute suspects not caught in the middle of an attack.

Hence the need for specialized piracy chambers. A new article by Douglas Guilfoyle supports this view of a developing consensus in the Security Council and his view that specialized chambers are the only practical solution. First Guilfoyle dismisses the other options set forth in the Jack Lang report. He notes that “the earlier calls from some politicians and diplomats for an international piracy tribunal have seemingly fallen away, [. . .] The idea can therefore finally be treated as dead and buried.”

He also considers a dedicated territorial court in Somalia (Puntland or Somaliland) or an extraterritorial court applying Somali law (along the model of Lockerbie) to be unrealistic because “Puntland has a piracy law but no meaningful judicial capacity or immediate ability to attain international standards. An extra-territorial court would require an adequate Somali piracy law and constitutional framework (which does not exist) and a pool of Somali judges (which is not available)”

He therefore concludes that “[P]rosecutions before national jurisdictions are the only feasible option, whether in the general court system or dedicated chambers. […] The question is now largely one of modalities.” These modalities will include the following: (1) identifying which states will create specialized chambers; (2) determining whether UN support is required; (3) and if so, establishing agreements for the provision of such assistance. In this regard, Guilfoyle raises an interesting problem:

[S]ome prosecuting jurisdictions, in a climate in which foreign aid budgets are dwindling, may be in a rare position to provoke a bidding war for international assistance between the various counter-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden in return for prosecutions. A rational allocation of counter-piracy resources may thus require a more centralized approach in negotiating future agreements.

The most likely candidate for this centralized role would be UNODC and/or UNDP as they have taken the lead in establishing the modalities for these specialized chambers. At the same time, donor states will have to be consulted. Considering all of the stakeholders and the fragmented nature of responses to piracy, strong leadership will be required to create a holistic solution.

A second avenue to assert universal jurisdiction over negotiators

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. 

In my previous post, I argued that the two pirate negotiators prosecuted by the United States – Mohammad Saaili Shibin and Ali Mohamed Ali – must have incited or intentionally facilitated piracy while on the high seas in order to have exposed themselves to prosecution by a court whole only basis for taking the case is universal jurisdiction.

There is another way for a pirate negotiator to subject himself to universal jurisdiction: an ex ante agreement to negotiate for pirates in the event of a successful hijacking.

This avenue is not applicable in the Shibin or Ali cases, as there is no evidence suggesting such an agreement, but it is nonetheless worth exploring because this is the avenue through which the true kingpins can be brought to justice.

The source of this second avenue of universal jurisdiction is the plain meaning of the verbs “to incite” and “to facilitate” contained in UNCLOS art. 101(c).

In the English dictionaries of the 18th, 19th, and 21st centuries, to incite is “to stir up,” “to animate,” and “to move to action.” To facilitate is to “to make easy,” “to free from difficulty,” or “to help bring about.”

Both of these verbs have prospective implications. An inciter or facilitator must either induce violence, detention or deprivation on the high seas or make such violence, detention, or deprivation on the high seas easier than that it would have been without the inciter or facilitator.

It strains both logic and credulity to suggest that an individual who had no involvement in – or even knowledge of – a hijacking on the high seas somehow spurred on or made easier that particular hijacking.

So in the end, we are left with two potential avenues for a pirate negotiator to subject himself to universal jurisdiction. The first is to commit an act of inciting or facilitating while physically present on the high seas, and the second is to enter into an ex ante agreement with the pirates.

The second avenue brings the real kingpins – financiers and investors, not negotiators – within the scope of universal jurisdiction. As for negotiators who neither enter into an ex ante agreements nor set foot on the high seas, they should still be judiciously targeted for prosecution, but something more than universal jurisdiction is required.

Flag states of the victim ship, national states of the crewmembers, as well as Somalia itself must step in and fulfill their international obligation to prosecute.

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.