Update: Le Ponant Trial Judgement

Our readers might remember Valerie Gabard’s guest post on the recent trial for the 2008 hijack of the French luxury yacht Le Ponant and the kidnap of its crew. After four years of pre-trial detention, two of the six Somali accused were acquitted, while the four others were convicted and sentenced to four to ten years of imprisonment.

We have now obtained the trial judgement in the case, issued by the 2nd Section of the Court d’Assise of Paris. Contrary to initial speculations, it seems that the Prosecution have decided not to appeal the Court’s decision, which is therefore final. Unfortunately, the judgement won’t shed much light on the Court’s motivations. In keeping with French practice for criminal trials, the judgement, at least when looked at from the perspective of international justice standards, is scantily reasoned, containing little or no more than the accusations against the accused, a recall of the main trial procedural steps and the court’s verdict.

It has to be recalled that the accused were charged with kidnapping, illegal confinement and organized gang theft in pursuance of Articles 224-6 of the French Criminal Code but not with a specific offence of committing piracy due to the temporary absence, in 2008, of a specific definition of piracy in the French criminal system. In the meantime, a new Anti-Piracy legislation was introduced in January 2011.

Efforts to Support Somalia-based Prosecutions Continue

Following a recent trial in the UAE resulting in the conviction of 10 pirates, the UAE has announced that it will host a training of Somali judges to buttress local, Somalia-based prosecutions. The UN report from January recommended regional prosecutions, in lieu of an international court, to tackle the expanding docket of Indian Ocean piracy cases without an obvious home. Such prosecutions were recommended and have continued in regional states, including Kenya, Tanzania, Mauritius, and Seychelles. Moreover, the UN report suggested that the break-away regions of Somaliland and Puntland, as well as the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu, would be appropriate locations for prosecutions. Since then, violence against the judiciary and fair trial concerns have arisen in Puntland in particular. Nonetheless, the UAE judicial training, apparently supported by the French ministry of foreign and European affairs, will identify and train judges from Puntland, Somaliland and the TFG. The move is consistent with efforts to funnel the piracy issue back to Somalia as regional states grow tired of bearing the brunt of the prosecutorial burden. The UAE report notes:

The Kenyan ambassador to the UAE Mohamed Gello said prosecuting pirates in neighbouring countries such as his was also a strain on resources.”Any move that will help the Somali judicial system effectively deal with pirates is welcome,” Mr Gello said. “This sends the right signals that law and order is slowly being restored, along with the administration of justice. “It is crucial to build confidence in the judicial system and for the pirates to be dealt with in their own country.”

Funneling Pirates Back to Somalia

A Broader Trend of Engagement for China? On China’s Vote in Favour of an International Piracy Tribunal


It is fair to observe that China has generally disassociated itself with the flow of the international criminal justice. Voting against the Rome Statute in 1998 has best elaborated its stand on this issue. An “overly active” global court is perceived to have the potential to jeopardize state sovereignty, the cornerstone of the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence China has consistently adhered to in its engagement of international affairs. A survey of China’s involvement with all the other UN-backed tribunals further confirms the above observation. Apart from Chinese judges, I am aware of only two senior staff to work in UN international tribunals. China is rarely interested in the work of these tribunals. Starting with low expectations, commentators were amazed, if not at all surprised, by China’s vote in favour of an international tribunal to prosecute piracy. In his speech at the UNSC debate, Chinese Ambassador Wang said his country would be in favour of the option of prosecution in Tanzania in an international court. To what extent is this an indicator of China’s broader trend of engagement with international criminal justice?

Observers arguing in favour of this proposition would suggest this happens in a wave of change in China’s view on international tribunals. In particular, China (the People’s Republic of China only took back the seat in the United Nations in 1971) for the first time appeared before the International Court of Justice in its proceedings in the Kosovo Advisory Opinion. China’s participation in this case is full-fledged, by both submitting written submissions as well as participating in the oral arguments. Lead by Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Legal Adviser, Ambassador Xue Hanqin (who later become a Judge at ICJ), the strength of the team is also unprecedented. As the words of Ambassador Xue plainly put:

[although] this is the first time for the People’s Republic of China to participate in the proceedings of the Court, the Chinese Government has always held great respect for the authority and importance of the Court in the field of international law.

If it is true that China has always paid tribute to the work of the ICJ, why is it only in 2009 that China first joined in its proceedings? One of the reasons is the nature of this case. It concerns the competing interests of the sovereign territorial integrity of a state and a minority group’s wish for independence under the principle of self-declaration. One may find it very easy to relate the situation to those China has been facing with regard to Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. All of these regions are legally and constitutionally part of China and recognized as such by the overall majority of international community. Yet each of them has been through different degrees of secessionist movements, in particular Taiwan, which arguably has been enjoying a de facto independent status. Beijing has unequivocally submitted these territorial integrity issues as the core interests of China. To resolve these issues in favour of China has always been one of the foremost tasks of Chinese diplomats like Ambassador Xue and her team. Fortunately enough for us in favour of the proper functioning of international law, she has successfully persuaded the country and its rulers to endorse her endeavour at the International Court of Justice.

Those who are sceptical of the above proposition might suggest that this is also true for the case of international prosecution of piracy: enormous Chinese interests are at stake. Chinese vessels are not immune to piracy. In a wave of pirate attacks in 2008, a Hong Kong vessel was seized in September 2008. Later another attempted siege was launched on a Chinese fishery boat in December 2008 and was fortunately defeated by “friendly countries’ force”. At the end of that year, China decided to send its own battle vessels to the area, a practice lasting until today. Nevertheless, Chinese vessels continue to be harassed by pirates. For example, the Chinese vessel “De Xin Hai” was seized in October 2009. After arduous negotiations, Beijing was forced to pay a large ransom. China’s efforts have also extended to transnational crime along international rivers, more particular the Mekong. China has prominently displayed its naval force in response to recent deadly attacks along the river. In conclusion, a lesson has been learnt in Beijing: there must be an orchestrated effort in this regard, probably including the international prosecution of crimes.

Having highlighted the special situation of these two cases, the question to be answered is will these be the only isolated incidents? I would refute that argument. Simply stated, for a country as significant as China with national interests interspersed throughout the globe, these examples tend to exhibit a general pattern rather than isolated incidents. No Chinese would have imagined China being so much involved in piracy off the coast of an East African country. Yet here we are.  As Chinese have frequently said, there is always a direct cause and a fundamental cause for an event. Applying this formulation to the trend of engagement with international criminal justice, the tangible Chinese interests at stake are the direct cause whilst the fundamental cause is the rising awareness of the value of international law, the functioning of the international courts and at its remote back the growing role of China in the global affairs.

A further extension of this principle to the International Criminal Court is still far off and the road to Rome will not be easy. After Ambassador Xue’s team headed back to China, challenges to this endeavour appeared. Critics believe if the sovereign integrity argument was refused by the International Court of Justice, the legitimacy of this consistently adhered-to position will be undermined. This was later proved to be not at all pessimistic. After all, China has much to learn in defending its national interest through the international justice system. Yet the signal is clear, China is getting on board!

A Globalized System of Criminal Justice

Piracy and armed robbery incidents reported to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre during 2011. Map courtesy of International Chamber of Commerce.

Criminal Justice for pirates has become a truly global affair, utilizing diverse state resources to funnel pirates through a limited number of regional states in East Africa back to their homeland of Somalia. More specifically, the UN’s preferred option for prosecuting Somali pirates will be national prosecutions in several East African states (Seychelles, Mauritius, Kenya, Tanzania) as well as in several semi-autonomous regions of Somalia (Somaliland, Puntland).  Prosecution in European states and the US would remain a backup plan. But this is only one piece of the criminal justice apparatus. Police functions in the Indian Ocean will continue to be performed by a combination of naval coalitions such as NATO and EUNAVFOR and by individual naval states with interests in commercial shipping through the high-risk piracy corridor (including the motley crew of the U.S., India, China, Iran, and others).  At the other end of the criminal justice chain is the prison system where there is currently a bottleneck.  In this regard, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime is in the process of refurbishing and building new prisons in Somaliland and Puntland to house convicted pirates.

This solution has several benefits as compared with the other solutions outlined by Jack Lang in January 2011. Prosecuting pirates in multiple regional states creates redundancies, so that if one or more courts prove incapable of continuing prosecutions, other options remain available. For example, Kenya recently stopped all of its piracy prosecutions due to a High Court decision ruling Kenyan courts did not have jurisdiction over piracy offences. Likewise, the Seychelles recently refused to accept pirates from a Danish ship because there was no guarantee that the pirates, if convicted, could be sent back to Somalia (for lack of prison space) and because the Seychelles’ limited judicial capacity. In situations such as these, other states might serve as back-up solutions so that prosecutions could be directed elsewhere.

Funneling Pirates Back to Somalia

Another advantage of this proposed solution is that it has the benefit of building local capacity. Instead of directing resources into a foreign institution, providing support to local courts and local prosecutors promises to increase the capacity of regional state institutions to address criminal justice issues beyond piracy.

The report also raises hopes that the financiers and organizers of piracy can be adequately addressed by East African states. In relation to Mauritius and Seychelles in particular, the report highlights the capacity of these states to prosecute inchoate crimes such as conspiracy, incitement and attempts to commit piracy. The UK and the Netherlands are funding a Regional Anti-Piracy Prosecutions Intelligence Co-ordination Centre (RAPPICC) in Seychelles, in part, for this purpose. This capability will be crucial in order to bring to justice those individuals who organize pirate enterprises, but never step foot on board a pirate vessel.

There will be heavy reliance on prisons in Puntland and Somaliland

However, the report and the plan are lacking in several respects.  First, the cost savings of this plan have likely been exaggerated. There is no final accounting provided in the UNSG report. But a cursory survey of the various costs associated with refurbishing courtrooms, providing expert assistance, hiring additional judges and prosecutors, conducting trainings and, especially building prisons, shows a quickly rising price tag. Combine this with additional unspecified costs that would likely accompany this proposal such as rule of law, general training, and governance projects and the costs may actually be about the same as a hybrid tribunal such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone or the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (about $40 million each annually). In any event, the proposed solution’s budget is modest compared with the sums that are currently being dumped into unsustainable solutions that fail to address the root of the problem.

In addition, the UNSG report apparently hazards some guesses as to the potential of its proposed course of action. Despite the different conditions in each country or region, the report indicates that Somaliland, Puntland, Kenya, and Mauritius will be capable of performing piracy investigations in 20 months and within two years would be able to prosecute 24 cases of 10 defendants each. These are good benchmarks to evaluate the success of these projects.  But it is hard to believe that they are realistic assessments of local conditions. The report evaluates the local capacities of each state/region indicating the number of prosecutors and judges in each. But it fails to compare these numbers of professionals to the actual populations that they must serve. Three hundred and five (305) Prosecutors in Tanzania seems to be a significant number compared to the 36 prosecutors for the whole of Somaliland. However, Tanzania’s population is 43.5 million and the population in Somaliland appears to be around 3.5 million. Therefore, the number of prosecutors per capita in Somaliland (1/10,000) is higher than in Tanzania (1/140,000). In addition, only 10 Tanzanian prosecutors would be in charge of piracy prosecutions. Likewise, the report fails to take into consideration the caseload of the respective prosecutorial groups that would be responsible for piracy prosecutions (i.e. the number of cases each attorney is responsible for, thereby dictating how much time they would have to devote to piracy cases). This suggests the projected capacities are not based upon a realistic assessment of current capacity.

More importantly, the report acknowledges that it was unable to predict with any accuracy the number of piracy cases that would likely proceed to trial. That is, how much prosecutorial and penal resources will likely be required in the next few years.  Due to the volatility of Somalia, the changing tactics of pirates and of commercial vessels responding with various self-defence measures, an accurate assessment in this regard is quite difficult. However, the report suggests that anticipating the numbers of piracy suspects likely to be apprehended at sea and transferred to regional states for prosecution was not possible because no information was available as to the reasons for the release of piracy suspects from the numerous states conducting naval anti-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean.  It is unclear why the UNSG was unable to obtain this information from various member states of the United Nations. But it has certainly left a conspicuous gap in the report’s findings.

Finally, the report ends without any recommendations as to how to prevent recidivism, including programs to retrain Somali prisoners and integrate them back into the community. In this regard, the proposed solution is short-sighted, enabling the relocation of pirates back to Somalia, but providing no real long-term preventative measures. The only permanent solution to piracy is a stable and economically prosperous Somalia. Hopefully, the London Conference can initiate positive reforms in this regard as it is widely accepted that the solution or piracy resides on land, and not at sea.

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