Caught Red-Handed: First Trial of Somali Pirates Poses Headache for Germany

By , Horand Knaup and

Somali pirates are about to face trial in Germany for the first time since the EU launched its operation against piracy off the Somali coast in 2008. It's a clear-cut case -- the 10 men were caught red-handed. But it poses a legal and diplomatic headache for the German authorities. Will this be the first trial of many?

Photo Gallery: Somali Pirates to Face Trial in Germany Photos
REUTERS

Hans Lodder already knows what command he will issue next week on Friday. Shortly before the Dutch frigate Tromp puts into port at the Den Helder naval base in northern Holland, Captain Lodder will order his crew to bring the broom on deck. It is a tradition on board the Tromp that dates back to the ship's namesake, a Dutch admiral who introduced the custom in 1652. "As a symbol that he has swept the seas clean of those who do not belong there," says Lodder.

This time it is with particular pride that they will fasten the broom to the mast. It was Lodder and his Dutch special forces who conducted a spectacular operation in the Indian Ocean roughly 1,000 km (600 miles) off the coast of Somalia, storming the German cargo ship MS Taipan and capturing the 10 Somalis who had seized the vessel.

Captain Lodder has good reason to be proud. His team took 10 prisoners and there were no casualties -- only one soldier received a slight concussion. It was the most successful anti-pirate operation ever undertaken in the Gulf of Aden.

But this has created problems for others, especially the German government. Following extensive negotiations, it is expected that the 10 alleged pirates will soon be brought to Germany to stand trial in a Hamburg court -- and they will probably not be the last ones to be extradited to Germany. Until recently, Western countries have been able to send apprehended pirate suspects to Kenya to be tried in a court of law. But now the Kenyans are refusing to cooperate, and there is no other African country in sight that is able to assume their role.

Violent Attack

This latest incident of piracy off the east coast of Africa could have actually ended tragically because it was more violent than initially reported. Only roughly half an hour after the first sighting of a suspicious speedboat was reported to MS Taipan Captain Dierk E. around noon on Easter Monday, heavily armed Somalis were already on board and had opened fire on the bridge with Kalashnikov assault rifles.

The captain of the German cargo ship is in his sixties and an experienced seaman. As a precaution, he had already sent the majority of his 15-man crew to the secure "panic room" when the first shots smashed through the safety glass of the bridge. Bullets and shards of glass literally flew around his ears, the captain later told investigators.

In accordance with regulations, E. had stopped the engines to make it impossible to maneuver the ship. He had also sent distress calls to his shipping company and the EU's Atalanta anti-piracy mission before he sought shelter with the rest of the crew in the secure room below deck.

There he waited with the crew, which included a German ship's mechanic, while the Tromp sailed at full speed to cover the 50 nautical miles that separated it from the MS Taipan. The Dutch were only able to launch the operation in the first place because the entire crew had managed to barricade itself in a safe room. "When we heard that the pirates were already on board, we thought: 'That's it, we'll have to turn away,'" says Lodder. But since the crew was not in any immediate danger, the government in The Hague gave the green light. The German government was also consulted, and it said that it had no objections.

Then everything went very rapidly. The Dutch used their ship's helicopter to fly the special forces over the bow of the MS Taipan, where they rappelled down from a height of roughly 15 m (50 ft.). Shortly beforehand, the helicopter had sprayed machine-gun fire at the bridge of the MS Taipan, where the assailants had sought cover. "The pirates threw down their weapons and quickly surrendered," says the Dutch commander. The entire operation took less than 15 minutes.

The Dutch seized five Kalashnikovs, two antitank rocket launchers and two handguns. Then it took them over an hour before they located the right steel door deep within the hold of the MS Taipan and found the crew. Inside the secure room all that the occupants knew was that there had been a "terrible racket" outside.

Initial questioning of the suspects by a Dutch soldier who speaks fluent Somali brought to light a surprise for the crew of the Tromp. They had come across one of the men before. He is one of the 73 suspected pirates that the Dutch have already apprehended during the course of their mission. "At the time he told us that he was a poor fisherman, but no one is going to believe that this time," says Lodder, who arrived in Djibouti with the alleged pirates on board on Wednesday. From there they were flown in a military aircraft to Eindhoven, where German extradition requests already await them.

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