Somali Pirates Testify in Court 'I Am Deeply Sad and Don't Know How to Go On'

Two out of the 10 Somali pirates on trial in Hamburg for hijacking a German container ship testified for the first time this week. Their stories provided a glimpse of the hardships of life in their lawless homeland.

Accused Somali pirates and their lawyers in the Hamburg court at the start of the trial on Nov. 22, 2010.
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Accused Somali pirates and their lawyers in the Hamburg court at the start of the trial on Nov. 22, 2010.

By in Hamburg


The accused, Hussein Carab M. politely thanked the court and those present for their attention before describing the hardships that led him to join up with pirates. He claimed that he was six years old when his parents were killed by a grenade in the chaos of Somalia's civil war, and then spent his childhood traumatized, and on his own.

Now a father himself, M. said he fears most for the safety of his son, given the mortal danger in which they have constantly lived. He claimed his son was kidnapped by a man to whom he owed about $1,100 (€848). He said he wanted to pay the man off using his cut from the ransoms he and fellow pirates planned to demand for the hijacked ship and crew.

Instead, M. and nine others were arrested by a Royal Dutch Navy special-forces unit after a failed raid on the German container ship, Taipan, and brought to Hamburg for trial. That was nine months ago. On Monday, M. and one of his fellow accused pirates had their day in court.

Since his arrest, M. said he has been living with the uncertainty about his son's fate, making him depressed and unable to eat. He said he could even give the court the name of the man who is holding the child. When prison officials noticed his condition, he said, they asked him if he was thinking about taking his own life, but they could not understand his reply.

M. asked the court on Monday to give him the chance to make a phone call so he could inquire about his son. "I am deeply sad and don't know how to go on", he said, beginning to cry.

Militias Rule the Streets

The testimony of Abdi Yussuf K. gave a glimpse of living conditions in war-torn Somalia, one of the most dangerous countries in the world. It has no government, police force or functioning judicial system. Brutal militias rule the streets.

Abdi Yussuf K. did not speak himself, his lawyer Jan-Henrik Heinz read out the fisherman's statement. The Somali had repeatedly claimed to be 20 years old -- possibly so he could still be tried as a juvenile. However, three doctors had analyzed x-rays of his teeth, collar bones and hand bones, and had come to the conclusion that he was considerably older than he said -- possibly as old as 30 or 40.

The accused pirate asked his lawyer to say on his behalf that he did not know his exact age: "We don't record age where I come from, and it is also not important." He said he thought he was 20 years old. "But after my examination, I no longer think I am 20. I believe what the experts say."

'How Would They All Survive?'

Abdi Yussuf K. claimed to have two wives and five daughters, and said that as a day-laborer fisherman he was no longer able to find work on a boat, thanks to depleting fish stocks, and couldn't find any other work. "How would they all survive?" he asked.

The Somali said that he had often watched the pirate boats as they anchored by his village to load up on water and provisions. He claimed he knew one could earn between $3,000 and $5,000 for a successful pirate raid, and that he decided to join one.

Because spots on a pirate ship are in high demand he allegedly promised a part of his earnings to a man from his village who had a good relationship with the pirates. He said there were non-Somalis on the boat as well, apparently Indian crew members who had been kidnapped during an earlier raid. These men had led the pirates to the busiest shipping areas in the hope of being set free, according to K.

Each member of the pirate crew was allegedly assigned a particular task. K. said his job was to scoop water out of the boats with a bucket. "I had nothing to do with weapons," he said. But he did not want to betray any friends by revealing who had done the shooting. He claimed that nothing was supposed to happen to the crew of the targeted ship, and that he had neither seen the rocket-propelled grenade being hoisted on the shoulder of one of the pirates upon spotting the Taipan, nor heard the corresponding bang.

He said he bailed water from the belly of one of the two boats -- each containing a crew of five -- that sped across to the Taipan, then tied the boat to the ship and climbed on board. They apparently searched in vain for the ship's crew until a Dutch navy helicopter appeared. K. said he then ran straight into the arms of the soldiers, surrendered himself and lay down on the deck.

At the end of the session Judge Bernd Steinmetz asked the defendant if the text presented by his lawyer, and translated in Somalia, was K.'s own explanation. K. then spoke his first word of the day: "Yes."

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