Captured Kidnappers Berlin Spared Embarrassment by Kenya Deal on Pirates

The Germany's navy first capture of pirates off the coast of Somalia triggered confusion back in Berlin last week, where officials quarrelled over what should be done with them. An EU agreement reached with Kenya on Friday should help avoid a repeat of the embarrassment.

By and Alexander Szandar

The suspected pirates captured by the German navy frigate "Rheinland-Pfalz" last week.

The suspected pirates captured by the German navy frigate "Rheinland-Pfalz" last week.

Since last Tuesday, nine Somali pirates who tried to hijack the German-owned freighter "Courier" have been baking on the deck of the German navy frigate "Rheinland-Pfalz". They are sitting in a white tent as the frigate steams through the Indian Ocean towards the Kenyan port of Mombasa, and they'll probably soon be harboring fond memories of their days in German custody.

Their trip is likely to end in a Kenyan high-security jail -- in Shimo la Tewa, the infamous Mombasa jail where eight other pirates are already awaiting trial. The place has 3,500 prisoners, it's humid and sweltering, most of them sleep on the floor -- and at night rats and cockroaches crawl over their legs. The drinking water is salty and malaria is widespread.

Last Friday, the call came from the German embassy in Nairobi that sealed the fate of the pirates and spared Germany international embarrassment. The European Union's extradition deal with the Kenyans had been signed.

Germany's ambassador to Kenya, Walter Lindner, had used all his diplomatic skills in months of negotiation to arrive at an extradition treaty between the European Union and Kenya so that European warships will in the future be able to hand over arrested pirates to Kenya, where they will be put on trial.

It was high time, because by that time the Rheinland-Pfalz had had the pirates on board for three days during which the sailors had learned that it's not hard to capture pirates, but that it can be very tough to figure out what to do with them. Should they be taken to Germany? Or handed over to a third country? Or would it be best to simply let them go?

Berlin Bureaucrats in Disarray

Back in Berlin, no one knew what to do at first. It seemed as though the relevant ministries were totally surprised by the unheard-of fact that the soldiers Germany had dispatched to the Gulf of Aden might actually catch some pirates.

The departmental heads in the ministries had planned everything as thoroughly as one would expect from a proper German pirate hunt. On February 12, a committee made up of senior officials from the defense, foreign, interior and justice ministries had met to run through the procedures following a capture.

They asked the right question -- what happens if German soldiers capture pirates? The committee also discussed a scenario that was especially complex from a legal point of view: a pirate attack on a ship owned by a German company but registered under a foreign flag and manned by a non-German crew.

They agreed that captured pirates should not be brought to Germany. Then last Tuesday, shortly after 9 a.m., pirates armed with small arms weapons and rocket-propelled grenades attacked the Courier -- a ship belonging to a Hamburg-based shipping company but traveling under the flag of the Caribbean state of Antigua and Barbuda and with a crew consisting of Philippinos and one Burmese man. The German frigate rushed to their aid.

It was exactly the kind of case the Berlin bureaucrats had trained for. But everything went wrong. Even before the ministerial committee had convened on Wednesday evening, the Interior Ministry, in the hands of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, and the Foreign Ministry, headed by Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, were already quarrelling publicly about the best course of action.

An Interior Ministry official accused the Foreign Ministry of failing to negotiate treaties with third countries such as Kenya. Steinmeier's diplomats retorted that an EU agreement with Kenya was ready to be signed.

To complicate matters, the state public prosecutor's office in the port city of Hamburg got involved and said it may press charges. After all, it's in charge of handling crimes committed at sea.

That irritated the ministry people in Berlin. Things weren't going as they had planned. So they decided to play for time.

They wanted to avoid having the pirates simply released somewhere on the coast of Somalia. So they ordered the frigate to keep course for Mombasa in the hope that Ambassador Lindner and his Czech colleague Margita Fuchsova, representing the current Czech presidency of the EU, would get the Kenyan government to sign an extradition treaty in time.

General Problem

The story of the Rheinland-Pfalz and its pirates sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare, but the Germans aren't the only ones with this problem. All countries that have dispatched warships to patrol the coast of Somalia are in a difficult legal position as soon as they make arrests.

Last September, the Danish navy released 10 pirates on a Somali beach because they didn't know what else to do with them. In January, the Danish warship Absalon sailed around the Gulf of Aden with five arrested pirates who had tried to seize a ship registered under the flag of Aruba. They were finally handed over to a Dutch warship.

The French, by contrast, took determined action when the French luxury yacht Le Ponant was captured by kidnappers. They sent in elite troops and took the kidnappers back to France.

So far, only Britain and the US have their own treaties with Kenya. The EU-Kenyan treaty signed last Friday will make life easier for the European warships patrolling the area as part of Operation Atalanta. But the problems haven't really been solved.

Kenya Reluctant

"We can't put all the pirates on trial here," said a Kenyan government spokesman. Human rights organizations have also been warning against agreements with the Kenyans. "No one guarantees a fair trial in Kenya," said Ben Rawlence of Human Rights Watch.

It's not even certain the pirates held in Kenya will end up being convicted. The lawyer of eight pirates currently in jail in Mombasa argues that the ships attacked weren't registered under a Kenyan flag and weren't heading for the country. "There is no logical reason for a Kenyan court to try to convict the suspects," he said.

The Rheinland-Pfalz will soon be rid of its pirates. Captain Markus Rehbein had even worked out what to do if Kenya, Antigua, the Philippines and the Hamburg prosecutors had all refused to take the pirates.

He had the pirates' boat lifted on board to make sure that, if he had been forced to release them on a Somali beach, he at least wouldn't have to do them the honor of ferrying them ashore in one of his ship's own launches.


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