Putting political convenience aside, pirates are rarely also terrorists

Jon Bellish is a Project Officer at the Oceans Beyond Piracy project just outside Denver, Colorado, though the views expressed are solely those of the author. You can follow him on Twitter.

A few months ago, I wrote a post entitled, Putting political convenience aside, pirates are simply not terrorists.  The piece argues that calls to treat all pirates as terrorists are totally unfounded, at least from a legal perspective. This is because, under international law, terrorism and piracy are accompanied by explicitly-defined, mutually exclusive motives.

Although I am standing by my substantive argument, the story of the MV Asphalt Venture is enough – as more astute readers may have noticed – to make me recalibrate my title a bit.

The Asphalt Venture is a Panamanian-flagged, Korean-owned vessel that was captured by pirates on September 28, 2010. On April 15, 2011, the pirates released eight of the Asphalt Venture’s fifteen crew members in exchange for a ransom payment, but the kept the remaining seven crew on board. Subsequently, the pirates issued a demand to the Indian government, particularly to the coastal state of Kerala, that the remaining hostages would not be released until India freed around 100 Somalis convicted of piracy and serving their sentences in India. Recently, the Asphalt Venture pirates have added a $5 million ransom to their list of demands of the Indian government. Old title notwithstanding, these pirates indeed became terrorists.

MV Asphalt Venture

As I explained in my earlier post, terrorism is characterized by a desire to either incite fear among the general public or to otherwise coerce a government. Conversely, piracy must be committed with the hopes of making money. Thus, where an individual takes hostages on the high seas in hopes of a ransom from a private entity, he is a pirate. Where he takes hostages on the high seas in hopes of shaping the behavior of a government, he is a terrorist.

Those who took the Asphalt Venture managed to be both. From September 28, 2010 to April 15, 2011, they were merely pirates, only interested in money moving from one private party to another. But the moment that the pirates engaged the Indian government, actively seeking to affect its behavior, those pirates also became terrorists.

Still, the case of the Asphalt Venture is best seen as an exception that proves the rule. Governments are famous for their refusal to pay ransoms, and pirates generally look to shipping companies and their insurers as the primary source of funds. Even with the Asphalt Venture itself, the pirates turned to the insurance company first, received their ransom, and only then did they make non-pecuniary demands of the Indian government.

I ended my last terrorism-related piece by noting that if “pirates tak[e] a less profitable course in favor of a strategy with large political payoff,” the terrorist-pirate distinction would come into play. This is exactly what has happened in the case of the MV Asphalt Venture. In abandoning their private ends in favor of increased political pressure, those who took the Asphalt Venture did not shed the moniker “pirate,” but they certainly gained the additional, arguably even less appealing label, of “terrorist.”

In the end, however, we should continue to be mindful that nothing short of actively pressuring a government to either take or refrain from a certain action can result in an accurate branding with the scarlet “T.” Looking at a single discrete incident to determine an individual’s motives and classify him as a pirate, terrorist, or both is one thing; seeking to apply the blanket term, “terrorist” to all pirates for political convenience is quite another.

Weekly Piracy Review: Crossfire near Somalia, Hostages Released

Pirate vessel ignites during firefight with HNLMS Rotterdam, NATO’s counter-piracy flagship

While patrolling the waters off the coast of Somalia on Wednesday the HNLMS Rotterdam, NATO’s counter-piracy flagship, destroyed a pirate fishing boat. The Rotterdam had deployed a boarding team to check out the boat, and upon confronting those aboard the ship the team began to take fire from fighters on the boat and on land. The fishing boat aroused suspicion as it was the type generally employed to transport pirates in their efforts to hijack larger merchant ships. The attack on the boarding team prompted the Rotterdam to return fire, which resulted in the fishing boat catching fire. Those on board were forced to flee into the sea, and despite continuing to draw fire from those onshore the Rotterdam proceeded to rescue at least 25 people from the water. One person was found dead, and it is unknown whether they were a pirate or being held hostage. It is also unclear how that person died. The Rotterdam suffered only minor damage and no one from the Dutch warship was injured.

In December of 2010 the MV Orna, a UAE-owned cargo vessel, was hijacked by a group of Somali pirates about 400 nautical miles North East of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. Since then the ship has been held hostage, along with the crew members who were taken with it. After growing impatient following nearly two years of attempting to collect a ransom for the return of the Orna and its’ crew, it has been reported that one of the hostages was killed in late August of this year. This killing was allegedly  carried out in an effort to prompt a ransom payment, though the truth of the story has recently been disputed by a technical advisor to the ship’s management company. If true, this act is believed to have been the first killing of a hostage by Somali pirates, as generally hostages are held unharmed until ransom is paid.

MV Orna

Last Saturday the vessel and 13 of the 19 crew believed to have been aboard were finally released following a ransom payment reported to be between $400,000 and $600,000. The ship’s captain, the chief engineer, and four other crew members were not released, and are still being held hostage. It is believed that their captors are divided into two separate groups, who disagree over the amount of money they require in order to release these remaining six hostages. The remaining hostages are being held by piracy investors, who support piracy by providing food and security for hostages during negotiations in return for a portion of the ransom. Negotiations are continuing between these piracy investors and the UAE company that owns the Orna.

The UAE’s National Transport Authority (NTA) announced a new anti-piracy security system it will be implementing. As part of the security measures being taken, tracking devices are being installed on commercial ships bearing UAE flags and carrying over 300 tons of cargo. This will allow these ships to be monitored around the clock from offices in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. According to the NTA, 150 ships have already been outfitted with the system, which will soon be installed on about 800 more. In addition, the system implemented by the NTA will provide on-board security protection for these vessels to further discourage piracy attacks.

The International Maritime Bureau reported this week that the number of reported attacks by Somali pirates has dropped to its’ lowest point since 2009. This is largely a reflection of increased efforts on the part of the international community to police the waters of the Arabian Sea around Somalia, focusing on patrolling the Gulf of Aiden. Along with this drop in pirate activity around Somalia there has been an increase in the number of attacks in other areas, including the Gulf of Guinea, Indonesia, and other parts of South Asia.

Weekly Piracy Review

Somalis on Trial for Piracy in Rotterdam

Kenya’s Court of Appeals overturned a 2010 ruling (as we have noted here and here), which had mandated that Kenyan courts only try cases in which the offense occurred within its territorial waters. This impaired Kenya’s ability to assist in the international effort to punish those carrying out acts of piracy on the high seas. Judge David Maraga read the opinion of the court concluding that “piracy has negative effects on the country’s economy and any state, even if not directly affected by piracy must try and punish the offenders.” Though it appears some piracy prosecutions were continuing in Kenya despite the 2010 ruling, the international community will be relieved to know that the law in Kenya is now settled and that no obstacles remain to such prosecutions.

Dutch court convicted nine Somali pirates to four-and-a-half years imprisonment. These individuals were arrested on-board an Iranian fishing boat they had taken in April. Though they were convicted of piracy, the men were acquitted on charges of attempted murder, as it could not be determined which of the men actually fired at the Dutch marines who arrested them.

Last Friday the Greek-owned carrier ship, the MV Free Goddess, was finally released by the Somali pirates who held it since Feb. 7, 2012. All 21 members of the crew who were on board at the time the ship was attacked over eight months ago were also released and appear to be well. The pirates responsible initially sought a $9 million ransom, yet they finally settled for $2.3 million last week-though the figure has also been reported as $5.7 million. This figure was stated by a Somali pirate and has not been confirmed by the company owning the ship, Free Bulkers SA. The ransom was air-dropped onto the Free Goddess, which then headed toward Oman to refuel, get fresh water and change out the crew members. During the time the ship was held hostage it was apparently being held at Gara’ad, a haven in Puntland, Somalia often used by pirates in the area.

Suspected Nigerian pirates boarded a Panamax tanker in the Gulf of Guinea off the Ivory Coast during the night on Saturday, October 6. Fourteen pirates, armed with knives and AK-47s hijacked the ship and re-directed it to Nigerian waters. They held the ship for three days while siphoning off oil, and then released the ship as well as all crew members on October 9. This attack was particularly alarming as it is the first of its’ kind to be reported in these waters, and shows that the Nigerian pirates are becoming both more sophisticated and bold. The attack occurred further west and away from Nigerian waters than any other reported attack, in an area which until now was believed to be safe for anchoring and performing fairly time-consuming operations. These Nigerian pirates took advantage of the fact that this particular ship was only midway through a ship-to-ship operation at the time of the attack. Tanker operators may now have to reassess their practice of carrying out these operations in the waters of the Ivory Coast.

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.

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.

Intentional Facilitation and Commission of Piracy as part of a Joint Criminal Enterprise

Defendant Ali Mohamed Ali, Source: Foxnews

In the U.S. government’s efforts to ramp up piracy prosecutions to include pirate kingpins, several cases of mid-level negotiators are working their way through the courts. We discussed one such case here. Another such prosecution recently met some setbacks when a U.S. District Court ruled in U.S. v. Ali that conspiracy to commit piracy was not a cognizable crime and further limited the application of intentional facilitation of piracy to acts committed on the high seas. See alsohere. The latter issue was apparently moot at the outset since the prosecution alleged that the negotiator was on the high seas when he intentionally facilitated the acts of piracy. However, in a contentious hearing last week, it became apparent that the Accused only spent about 25 minutes on the high seas and that his criminal conduct may not have occurred in that time frame. Therefore the high seas issue is now central to the outcome of the case. The Prosecution has signalled its intent to file an interlocutory appeal and the Judge has ordered that the Accused be released on bail, noting misrepresentations by the prosecution on this issue. In my view, the conspiracy ruling was correct, but intentional facilitation was improperly limited to conduct on the high seas. This latter error would impede future prosecutions of pirate leaders in U.S. courts.

It should be made clear that U.S. courts that have addressed the issue in the last several years have uniformly concluded that although the U.S. is not a party to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, this treaty contains the definition of piracy under customary international law which is incorporated by the U.S. piracy statute (18 USC 1651). Therefore, piracy is defined in the U.S. purely by reference to international law, and not domestic U.S. law. See here for further background.

In its 13 July Decision in U.S. v. Ali, the Court held that the piracy statute requires that intentional facilitation occur on the high seas. See Memorandum Opinion at 17. I disagree with this interpretation of UNCLOS for several reasons. First, a plain language reading of UNCLOS does not impose a requirement that inciting or intentionally facilitating an act of piracy occur on the high seas. Article 101(a)(i) of UNCLOS defines piracy as “any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends […] on the high seas […]” Intentional facilitation of such an act of piracy appears in subsection (c) of Article 101 which does not include the requirement that the act occur on the high seas. In other words, the illegal act of violence or detention must occur on the high seas, but the facilitation need not occur there.

The U.S. piracy statute could create some confusion as it specifically refers to piracy committed on the high seas which might be interpreted to extend the high seas requirement to intentional facilitation. (See 18 USC 1651 which provides in full, “Whoever, on the high seas, commits the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations, and is afterwards brought into or found in the United States, shall be imprisoned for life.”) However, the reference to piracy on the high seas in 18 USC 1651 is redundant. By definition under customary international law, acts of piracy (though not incitement or facilitation) must occur on the high seas. The reference to acts on the high seas in 18 USC 1651 was only meant to emphasize that conduct committed in the territorial waters of another state would not constitute piracy (such conduct is instead robbery at sea, solely within the purview of the littoral state). It is not at all clear that Congress would intend to modify the otherwise settled view of the law of nations. Therefore, to impose the high seas requirement on subsection (c) of UNCLOS (pertaining to intentional facilitation), which does not appear in the plain language of the treaty, would be contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Charming Betsy canon (whereby a statute should be construed not to violate international law).

Furthermore, restricting intentional facilitation of piracy to crimes perpetrated wholly on the high seas is not necessary to protect the sovereignty of states where pirate kingpins may reside. The piracy statute only provides personal jurisdiction over those who are “afterwards brought into or found in the United States.” If a pirate kingpin has negotiated a ransom from the territory of another state, the U.S. must request extradition through the usual means prescribed by international law. For all of these reasons, the high seas requirement should not be added to the crime of intentional facilitation of piracy.

As to the District Court’s second holding, the decision to dismiss the conspiracy to commit piracy charge appears well-founded. However, it is worth considering whether other forms of responsibility, firmly established in customary international law, might support the criminalization of the conduct in question. For example, commission has been interpreted by the ad hoc tribunals (ICTR, ICTY, SCSL, STL) to encompass the form of responsibility referred to as joint criminal enterprise (JCE) where there exists (1) a plurality of persons; (2) a common plan, design or purpose which amounts to or involves the commission of a crime and (4) the accused’s participation in the common plan. Of course, the tribunals did not have competence to consider charges of piracy. However, similar forms of accessory liability are found in numerous domestic legal systems and piracy prosecutions in Seychelles have been successful on a theory of accomplice liability akin to JCE. See here and here. This mode of responsibility has not been considered by any U.S. court in a piracy case.

Jama Idle Ibrahim, sentenced last year to 25 years for his role in the same attack, will be a government witness against Ali.

Apart from the jurisdictional issues, the ultimate question in this prosecution is whether negotiators acting as middlemen between pirate hostage-takers and those seeking their release “intentionally facilitate” piracy pursuant to UNCLOS. The answer will depend on the factual circumstances and how the mens rea of facilitation is construed. The drafters of UNCLOS limited facilitation by requiring that the accused intentionally (not merely negligently or recklessly) facilitated the piratical act. This suggests not only that the Accused must intend to support the illegal act of violence or detention, but also that the facilitator must share the pirate’s intent to commit the act “for private ends” (i.e. for personal enrichment or other non-political purposes). Involvement in negotiations to release the hostages for humanitarian reasons would not satisfy this mens rea requirement. Elsewhere, Professor Kontorovich suggests that intentional facilitation cannot occur after an act of piracy, but must have occurred prior to it. But if the piratical act was committed with the pre-formed intent to hold hostages for ransom, then the completed piratical act would not have been possible but for the intervention and assistance of a negotiator to complete the transaction. If a negotiator also possesses the intent to personally enrich himself, the conduct would appear to fall within Article 101(c) of UNCLOS.

One final word about the fairness of this prosecution. Depending on the circumstances of a case, the negotiation of a ransom (or the financing of piracy for that matter) may appear to be less reprehensible than the acts of violence committed against seafarers on the high seas. Such is the dichotomy between low-level perpetrators and their white-collar sponsors. If a mandatory life sentence, as is imposed by the U.S. piracy statute, is inappropriate in some cases involving accomplice liability, this is a matter of charging strategy best left to the prosecutor. There are a number of other non-piracy statutes in the prosecutor’s repertoire that could be put to use. But it is an overbroad statement to assert that all white-collar facilitators of piracy deserve leniency.