Dutch judges sentence 5 Somalis to 5 years each in first piracy case to reach European court

By Toby Sterling, AP
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dutch court sentences 5 Somali pirates to 5 years

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands — Five Somali men were sentenced to prison Thursday for attacking a Dutch-Antilles-flagged cargo ship with automatic weapons and a rocket-propelled grenade, in the first piracy case to come to trial in Europe in modern times.

The five were convicted of assaulting the Samanyulo in the Gulf of Aden in 2009 — an attack that was thwarted up by helicopter-borne Danish marines. Each of the attackers was sentenced to five years in prison.

“Piracy is a serious crime that must be powerfully resisted,” said presiding judge Klein Wolterink.

But one of the defendants called the decision unfair.

“Netherlands don’t like Muslim people,” Sayid Ali Garaar, 39, repeated several times in rough English. “This is not legal.”

During the trial Garaar had wept and said poverty had driven him to desperation.

The case is a landmark in the fight against the escalating incidents of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, which prompted navies around the world to join in a task force to protect one of the world’s busiest sea lanes for merchant ships and oil tankers.

Pirates sometimes succeed in collecting multi-million-dollar ransoms. And the high-seas hijackings have persisted despite an international armada deployed by the United States, the European Union, NATO, Japan, South Korea and China.

Maritime experts say the trial is unlikely to deter the piracy, which brings large amounts of money into the impoverished and lawless coastal region of Somalia.

Prosecutors had asked for seven-year sentences, but Wolterink said he took into account the difficult conditions in Somalia that led the men to piracy.

Nonetheless, he said he was swayed by the fact that the pirates “were only out for their own financial gain and didn’t let themselves be troubled about damage or suffering caused to victims.”

It was only by “lucky coincidence that nobody was killed or wounded,” the judge said.

Defense lawyer Willem Jan Ausma said he planned to appeal. “I was not surprised by the ruling, but I had hoped for a lower sentence,” he said.

Other Somali piracy suspects are being held in France, Spain, Germany and the U.S.

Kenya has convicted 18 pirates since 2007. More than 100 accused await trial there.

Hundreds of pirates have been detained and several have been brought to Europe since the international armada was mobilized, but the majority have been released at sea because of the cost and difficulty of bringing them to trial.

One concern for European countries is that the pirates may try to stay once their sentence is served. Dutch authorities don’t deport illegal immigrants from Somalia because the East African country is deemed too unstable and dangerous, lacking a stable central government since the early 1990s.

“We didn’t bring them here to stay,” said prosecution spokesman Guus Schram. “We brought them here to prosecute them and for them to sit out their sentence.”

Prosecuting pirates was the right thing to do, he said. “At the moment there are more than 200 crew members being held hostage on the Somali coast, and the possibility that some suspects might stay here longer than we’d like can’t be a reason not to act against them.”

But the defense attorney said the idea of bringing Somali pirates to the Netherlands for trial was poorly conceived.

“It’s not a solution to bring them here,” Ausma said. “Keep them there, look for a solution there.”

At their trial last month the men who were sentenced Thursday denied wrongdoing. Most said they had been fishing and had approached the container ship for help when their skiff ran out of fuel and food.

But the judge cited testimony from the ship’s crew that the pirates had approached in a threatening manner, moving up swiftly from behind the freighter.

In written testimony, crewmen said they used flares to hold off the attackers, who fired automatic weapons and at least one round from a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Danish marines who flew over the pirates’ skiff in a helicopter after the incident saw no weapons on board but the skiff was carrying a ladder with hooks used for boarding ships.

After the Danish helicopter fired warning shots at the skiff, the pirates jumped overboard. All five were picked up by a Danish navy boat. They were later handed to Dutch authorities for trial because the Samanyulo was sailing under a Dutch Antilles flag.

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