Language, Capacity Issues Plague Indian Prosecutions of Somali Pirates

Suspects aboard the pirate ship the INS Taba on their way to Mumbai after being arrested by the Indian navy in March 2011. Photograph: Indian navy/EPA

The trial of about 120 Somalis in India is encountering significant obstacles, including difficulty finding qualified Somali-speaking interpreters, procuring deposition evidence from victims, and dealing with the sheer volume of cases on backlog. India’s navy has been very active in helping to patrol the seas off the coast of Somalia. It also recently used its turn as President of the Security Council to put the fight against worldwide piracy at center stage. Perhaps because of its pro-active approach, India has taken into custody a large number of suspected pirates. As we have seen in any number of western countries taking up piracy prosecutions, there are substantial challenges that come with prosecuting Somalis in a transnational setting. This is not to mention the legal obstacles faced by countries attempting to revive centuries old laws to address the resurgence of this type of criminality. As we surveyed in 2011, India’s legal framework for piracy required updating. Video-link testimony and interpretation, in addition to, a more active foreign office might assist the prosecutions in these cases.  Of course, all of these solutions require resources and technological capacity. This is true whether prosecutions move forward in the Netherlands, the U.S. or in India.

SCOTUS Denies Hearing of Piracy Cases

Lady Justice in front of the U.S. Supreme Court

We have been following a number of piracy cases in the U.S. two of which had resulted in convictions and looked like they might be heading to the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). The issue in U.S. v. Said and U.S. v. Dire was whether piracy, as defined by the law of nations, incorporates modern developments in international law. See also here. By declining to hear the cases, SCOTUS takes no view on the debate. However, in several lower court decisions, judges have relied on the pronouncement in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain that claims “must be gauged against the current state of international law, looking to those sources we have long, albeit cautiously, recognized.” This conclusion runs counter to a judicial philosophy of strictly construing the plain language of a statute based on the understanding of the congressional authors at the time the act came into law. Because piracy was a novel issue unaddressed by SCOTUS in several hundred years, and because the legal issue on appeal invited strong ideological views, I had thought the case for hearing Said and Dire was fairly strong. Nonetheless, one weakness in the argument was that there was no split of authority between the federal courts of appeal (one basis for SCOTUS granting discretionary review). Both cases originated in the 4th circuit and reached the same conclusion on this point of law.

The same is not necessarily true in a second set of cases in U.S. courts involving pirate negotiators. In the case of U.S. v. Shibin, in the 4th Circuit, the defendant was convicted for aiding and abetting piracy although he was a hostage negotiator operating from within Somalia, and it is reported that Shibin only boarded the pirated ship after it entered Somali waters. In U.S. v. Ali, the federal court in the DC Circuit reached the opposite result and dismissed the aiding and abetting charges against an alleged pirate negotiator because it held that piracy must be committed on the high seas. These cases raise the issue of whether piracy can be perpetrated on land or within a state’s territorial waters, despite UNCLOS defining piracy as an offense perpetrated on the high seas. U.S. v. Ali is the subject of a prosecution interlocutory appeal on this issue, and Shibin’s conviction is on appeal to the 4th Circuit. Therefore SCOTUS might have another opportunity to get involved in the piracy debate and to make a contribution to the status of customary international law on the subject – although it might take another year for these cases to be ripe for review. On the other hand, it appears both circuits might reach the same conclusion and find that aiding and abetting piracy can be perpetrated on land – a position I have argued in a forthcoming law review article in the Florida Journal of International Law.

 

Liability for the Destruction of Suspected Pirate Skiffs?

In one of their latest reported joint anti-piracy operation, EUNAVFOR and Combined Task Force 151 announced the disruption of potential piracy attacks off the Somali coast. In November 2012, the Romanian frigate ROS Regele Ferdinand, under EUNAVFOR command, and Turkish warship TCG Gemlik, of Combined Task Force 151, apprehended nine suspected pirates at sea off the coast of Somalia. Earlier, a Swedish EUNAVFOR maritime patrol aircraft located the skiff at 420 nautical miles east of Mogadishu, an area known for pirate activities. At the scene, the TGC Gemlik sent a boarding team to intercept and search the suspected vessel, which for over an hour tried to evade capture. The suspected pirates were then embarked onto the ROS Regele Ferdinand for futher questioning and evidence collection to assess the possibility of their prosecution. No fishing supplies were found on board, while it remains unclear whether the suspects were armed. Shortly after their apprehension, the suspected pirates were released onto a Somali beach for lack of sufficient evidence to proceed to their prosecution. According to EUNAVFOR, despite the strong suspicion that it was a pirate boat, it was determined that there was not sufficient evidence to build a case and prosecute the suspected pirates, as they were not caught actually committing any crime. In additon, building a case against the suspects would be too time-consuming and onerous.

German frigate Hamburg sinks an abandoned skiff off the coast of Somalia. Credit: Christian Bundeswehr - Reuters

German frigate Hamburg sinks an abandoned skiff off the coast of SomaliaCredit: Christian Bundeswehr – Reuters

However, their skiff and other effects on board, including fuel and ladders, were instead destroyed. According to EUNAVFOR, this will prevent the suspected pirates from using the skiff to attack ships in the future. By means of example, this incident, by no means uncommon, raises the question of the diffferent evidentiary grounds and standards of proof for the prosecution of suspected pirates and the destruction of boats and equipment belonging to them. While the destruction of a pirate vessel can prevent the perpetration of further piracy attacks, the sinking of a fishing boat, however small, might put a strain to the fishermen’s livelihoods. Article 106 of UNCLOS (and Article 110(3)) provides for the possible liability for any loss or damange caused by the seizure of a suspected pirate ship when effected without adequate grounds.

Liability for seizure without adequate grounds

Where the seizure of a ship or aircraft on suspicion of piracy has been effected without adequate grounds, the State making the seizure shall be liable to the State the nationality of which is possessed by the ship or aircraft for any loss or damage caused by the seizure.

What are the grounds for the seizure and destruction of suspected pirate vessels and how do these differ from those provided for the arrest and prosecution of suspected pirates? In this regard, the legal framework applicable to the contrast to piracy, particularly in Somalia, needs some additional clarification and interpretation. UNCLOS explicitly provides only for a right of visit when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that a ship is engaged in piracy (Article 110) and for a right of hot pursuit of a ship into the high seas only when there are good reasons to believe that a violation was committed (Article 111). The SUA Convention, its additional protocol, as well as the Djibouti Code of Conduct also contain references to various evidentiary thresholds, mainly reiterating the principles above contained in UNCLOS relevant to cooperation, rights of visit and liability for loss or damage.

In its recent Resolution 2077 (2012), approved after a significant debate on piracy as a threat to international peace and security, the Security Council renewed its call to continue the fight against piracy, including through the disposition of boats and other relevant equipment for which there are reasonable grounds for suspecting their use in the commission of piracy and armed robbery at sea:

10. Renews its call upon States and regional organizations that have the capacity to do so, to take part in the fight against piracy and armed robbery at sea off the coast of Somalia, in particular, consistent with this resolution and international law, by deploying naval vessels, arms and military aircraft and through seizures and disposition of boats, vessels, arms and other related equipment used in the commission of piracy and armed robbery at sea off the coast of Somalia, or for which there are reasonable grounds for suspecting such use;

Indeed, EUNAVFOR’s seizures or disposals of suspected pirate skiff are premised upon the standard of “reasonabile grounds to suspect” (see also here). How to interpret, therefore, this standard? Resolution 2077, issued under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, also makes various references to the need to ensure compliance with international law and more particularly, “applicable human rights law” and “due process of law in accordance with international standards” in the pursuit of accountability for suspected pirates (see also paras 16-18 and 20). A review of international human rights and criminal law, while concerning crimes of a different nature, might thus provide for futher guidance. Various standards exist and, admittedly, some differ from others by mere semantics. Article 58(1) of the ICC Statute, relevant to the issuing of a warrant of arrests, provides for the evidentiary threshold of “reasonable grounds to believe”. This is significantly different from the threshold required for the confirmation of charges against an individual under Article 61(7) of the same Statute (“substantial grounds to believe”) or, obviously, for a conviction under Article 66(3) (“beyond reasonable doubt”). “Reasonable grounds to believe” are also required before the ICTY for the submission of an indictment by the Prosecutor or in relation to contempt proceedings (Articles 47 and 77(c) of the ICTY Rules of Procedure, respectively). The ICC Pre-Trial Chamber equated the “reasonable grounds to believe” standard to the “reasonable suspicion” standard under Article 5(1)(c) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Arguably, this comparaison appears questionable. Believing is a concept stronger than suspecting. However, while also relevant to arrest and detention, the ECHR determined that this standard consists of the existence of facts and information which would satisfy an objective observer that the person concerned may have committed a crime. The procedure for the submission of an indictment before the ICTY provides the following description of the meaning of “reasonable grounds”:

Reasonable grounds point to such facts and circumstances as would justify a reasonable or ordinarily prudent man to believe that a suspect has committed a crime. To constitute reasonable grounds, facts must be such which are within the possession of the Prosecutor which raise a clear suspicion of the suspect being guilty of the crime. […] It is sufficient that the Prosecutor has acted with caution, impartiality and diligence as a reasonably prudent prosecutor would under the circumstances to ascertain the truth of his suspicions. It is not necessary that he has double checked every possible piece of evidence, or investigated the crime personally, or instituted an enquiry into any special matter. […] The evidence, therefore, need not be overly convincing or conclusive; it should be adequate or satisfactory to warrant the belief that the suspect has committed the crime. The expression “sufficient evidence” is thus not synonymous with “conclusive evidence” or “evidence beyond reasonable doubt.” (Review of the Indictment against Ivica Rajic, Decision of 29 August 1995, Case no. IT-95-12)

Given the limited role played by EUNAVFOR in the investigation and prosecution of piracy, perhaps reference to recent international commissions of inquiry, whose standards are generally lower than those of purely judicial institutions, might also provide for additional guidance. For instance, the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur acted upon a standard of “reliable body of material consistent with other verified circumstances, which tends to show that a person may reasonably be suspected of being involved in the commission of a crime” (para. 15).

Pirates or Fishermen? - Courtesy AP

Pirates or Fishermen? – Courtesy AP

Put plainly, the review above shows that a discrete amount of supporting evidence and the mere possibility, rather than the certainty, of the commission of a crime are therefore required to meet the “reasonable suspicion” standard encompassed in Resolution 2077 for the seizure and disposition of suspected pirate skiffs. It is, arguably, an extremely low standard but it demarcates the basic threshold for piracy-disruption activities. Suspecting the commission of a crime, however, falls a long way from having demonstrable proof. While this standard might also be akin to that required for the arrest of a suspected pirate, those necessary to proceed to his investigation and prosecution are increasingly higher and still depend upon factors such as the quantity and the quality of the evidence, as well as the willingness of State actors to proceed. Finally, several questions remain on the suitability and susceptibility of claims of unlawful destruction of vessels to be brought before Somali authorities when adequated grounds for such destruction are missing or in doubt.

Shibin files appellate brief

On December 13, Mohammad Shibin filed an Appellate Brief with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Shibin was charged with eight crimes, comprising fifteen separate counts, for his alleged role as a hostage negotiator in the hijackings of the Marida Marguerite, a German merchant vessel manned by foreign nationals, and the S/V Quest, an American sailing vessel with Americans on board. At trial, Shibin was convicted of all fifteen counts and sentenced to multiple life sentences plus 120 months in prison.

This post will offer a brief summary of the defendant’s arguments followed by even briefer commentary concerning the plausibility of those arguments. On balance, Shibin may have earned himself a retrial on a couple of issues, but he is highly unlikely to escape punishment altogether.

Mohammad Shibin shortly after his arrest.

Shibin’s first argument on appeal is that the two counts of piracy under 18 U.S.C. §§ 1651 and 2 should be dismissed because, “[i]n what could be characterized as almost indifference to this essential requirement, the government failed to present any evidence that Shibin had at any point committed any act upon the high seas whatsoever” (emphasis in original). In support of this argument, Shibin advances the plain language of § 1651, the legislative history of §§ 1651 and 2, prior lower court opinions on the issue, and customary international law as found in the Harvard Draft Convention and the Geneva Convention on the High Seas. These sources, according to the defendant, all suggest that universal jurisdiction over piracy only exists for those acts committed on the high seas or outside the territorial jurisdiction of any state, and that § 1651 only purpose is to criminalize those extraterritorial acts.

I have written a great deal about this argument in the past, and rather than re-hash it all here, I’ll direct readers to this EJIL Talk post and to other on CHO. I will add, however, that I agree that using § 2 to provide for universal jurisdiction over facilitators who act from with a single nation’s territory is impermissible under the Charming Betsy Canon. Ultimately, though, this is an issue that has yet to be fully litigated, so it is anyone’s guess how it will come out in the end.

Second, Shibin advances the ambitious argument that all counts should be dismissed because Shibin was improperly brought before the U.S. courts. Shibin rightly notes that a pair of Supreme Court cases, Frisbie v. Collins and Ker v. Illinois, stand for the proposition that “the power of the court to try a person for a crime is not impaired by the fact that he has been brought within the court’s jurisdiction by reason of a forcible abduction.” The Ker-Frisbee doctrine has been endorsed in the face of extradition treaties that were was silent on the propriety of forcible abductions in, inter alia, U.S. v. Alvarez Machainand Kasi v. Angelone. Shibin seeks to distinguish his case by noting that the United States and Somalia do not have an extradition treaty. The lack of such a formalized agreement, according to the defendant, signals the Somali government’s unwillingness to allow foreign officials’ access to their citizens.

This argument seems likely to fail with respect to the Marida Marguerite and will almost certainly fail regarding the Quest. In Alvarez Machain, the Court essentially held that silence as to the propriety of forcible transfers renders American courts unwilling to look into the legality of such transfers. This logic seems to suggest that U.S. courts view the right not to be forcibly brought before a U.S. court as a right that a foreign government must affirmatively assert on behalf of its citizens. Somalia’s silence on the matter is therefore likely to be interpreted in a similar fashion, whether or not that silence comes in the context of an extradition treaty.

The third argument advanced by the defendant is that all of the non-piracy offenses charged in connection to the Marida Marguerite should be dismissed because they are not crimes of universal jurisdiction. These counts include hostage taking and conspiracy to commit hostage, conspiracy to commit violence against maritime navigation and committing violence against maritime navigation, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and kidnapping. Shibin finds support for this argument in U.S. v. Yousef, 327 F.3d 56 at 104 (holding that universal jurisdiction crimes cannot be created judicially, by analogy, or through references to aspirational treaties or scholarly works).

However, this argument ignores the same Charming Betsy Canon upon which the defendant relies in support of his piracy charges. The Charming Betsy Canon states that statutes should not be construed as to violate the law of nations unless Congress manifests its intent to do so. However, 18 U.S.C. § 1203 (hostage taking), 18 U.S.C. § 2280 (violence against maritime navigation), and 18 U.S.C. § 1201 (kidnapping) all contain “found in” or “brought before” provisions stating that the United States shall have jurisdiction over those individuals who are later found in the United States or brought before a U.S. court. Thus Congress provides for some form of qualified universal jurisdiction over hostage taking, violence against maritime navigation, and kidnapping that arguably violates international law. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of precedent stating that courts will uphold such statutes if Congress’ intent is clear. It must be said, tough, that none of this precedent concerns a defendant with no traditional connection to the United States whatsoever, as is the case with Shibin’s charges stemming from the Marida Margueritte.

Finally, Shibin challenges the testimony of an FBI agent concerning a translated interview between that agent and Muhamud Salad Ali, one of the individuals who captured the Quest. Shibin argues that the facts surrounding the translation are such that the translator created an additional level of hearsay, and the translator’s absence from trial constitutes a violation of the Federal Rules of Evidence and the Confrontation Clause. In support of his argument, Shibin relies on a four-part test announced in the Fifth Circuit in U.S. v. Martinez-Gaytanand adopted by the Fourth Circuit in U.S. v. Vidacak. At issue in these cases was whether the translator should be considered an out of court declarant or a mere conduit of the in court witness. The four factors to be considered are: 1) which party supplied the translator; 2) whether the translator had a motive to fabricate; 3) the translator’s qualifications and skills, and; 4) whether actions taken subsequent to the translation were consistent with the statement translated.

According to Shibin, three of the four factors mitigate in favor of requiring the translator’s presence in court for examination. First, the FBI agent in question described the translator as “an FBI Somali linguist,” suggesting that the government supplied the translator. The second factor – potential motive to fabricate – is neutral, as there is no evidence suggesting bias. Third, there is no basis to determine the translator’s skill, as nobody but the prosecution had access to him or her. Finally, Mr. Salad Ali’s testimony in court directly contradicted that which came out of the earlier translated interview. On balance, Shibin argues, the nature of this particular translation created an additional layer of hearsay that can only be remedied through a re-trial of which the Somali translator would need to be a part.

This argument seems plausible on its face, assuming the facts and the law are as the defense brief says they are. Without more research or access to the government’s yet-to-be-filed brief, it is impossible to predict the outcome of this particular argument. I will note, however, that Shibin makes a Confrontation Clause argument that he says should stand regardless of the outcome of the hearsay argument. It seems to me, however, that the hearsay argument and Confrontation Clause argument will rise or fall together. If the translator is deemed a mere conduit of Mr. Salad Ali, the latter of whom was available for confrontation, it would be difficult to argue that the translator’s translation was testimonial.

UPDATE: Convictions in First Italy Piracy Trial

The 9 month-long piracy trial for the 2011 hijack of the Italian bulk carrier MV Montecristo, the first in Italian modern history, concluded last week in Rome with the conviction of all 9 Somali accused to prison terms of 16 and 19 years. We previously reported about this trial and Italy piracy laws here.

The accused were found guilty of attempted kidnapping for extortion and illegal possession of firearms. As the crime of kidnapping was only attempted, the maximum penalty range of 25 to 30 years of prison foreseen by the Italian criminal code was reduced by one third. During the trial, the accused unsuccessfully sought to be tried in the UK, in light of having been initially apprehended by UK forces, and challenged their transfer to Italian authorities. In accordance with Italian laws, the motivations for the verdict will be published within 3 months. All accused are likely to appeal the sentence, with some indicating to be ready to take the matter up to the European Court of Justice.

Interestingly, the prosecutors’ claim of the pirates connections with Al-Shabaab and the attack on the Montecristo being aimed at financing its terrorist activities and foster a campaign of obstruction of the free maritime transit in the Indian Ocean was rejected. Once again, this confirms the very tenuous links between the pirates’ business model and terrorism. In its latest report, the Monitoring Group on Somalia also found no evidence suggesting a structural or organizational link between Al-Shabaab and Somali pirate networks.

Another piracy trial will start on 4 December 2012, concerning the attempted hijack of the Italian oil tanker MV Valdarno on January 2012, off the Omani coast. The 11 Somalis charged with this attempted hijack opted for a plea bargain and are likely to receive a substantially reduced prison sentence.