A Precedent or a Farce? Court Faces Daunting Hurdles in Hamburg Pirate Trial

A Hamburg court is trying to make sense of a pirate attack off the coast of Somalia last April. But even as many hope the trial will produce a precedent for Europe's approach to high seas crime, the court can't even figure out how old the suspects are. The challenges to justice are immense.

Piracy off the coast of Somalia has become a difficult problem for a court in Hamburg.

Piracy off the coast of Somalia has become a difficult problem for a court in Hamburg.


Youssef M.'s daily routine has remained largely unchanged of late. Every day, the young Somali sits in a Hamburg courtroom, headphones firmly clamped to his ears, and listens attentively to a running translation of the proceedings against him.

Whether he is indeed guilty of the crimes he has been charged with seems beyond question. He belongs to a group of 10 Somalis caught by Dutch marines last April 5. The group tried to hijack a German cargo ship, the MV Taipan, but couldn't find the crew and were caught red-handed.

Nevertheless, the ongoing trial, which began last November, could have far-reaching implications for the future of ongoing efforts to stem rampant piracy off the coast of Somalia. With Kenya last year refusing to try any more Somali pirates on Europe's behalf, Hamburg jumped into the void -- and the ongoing proceedings may set a precedent for Western justice when it comes to robbery on the high seas.

But the trial has been full of absurdities. Not only has it been difficult to ascertain the defendants' ages, but the court is faced with thorny questions about how exactly German law should approach outlaws from a failed state.

'A New Social and Legal Order'

And it has been the defendants' lawyers' job to make those questions even more difficult to answer. "Youssef M. finds himself in a completely new social and legal order," his lawyer, Rainer Pohlen, said during proceedings on Monday. He argued that his client was 16 years old -- young enough to be considered for Hamburg's youth-welfare system. Pohlen then asked the prosecution to drop charges against Youssef and place him under state protection.

There, Pohlen argued, he might be able to learn German and vital job skills on the way to building a new life as a law-abiding immigrant. "He won't have to fight for his daily bread here," Pohlen argued. "He would have a completely different set of opportunities."

Hamburg state prosecutors, perhaps not surprisingly, refused to drop charges on Monday, arguing that court medical experts have put his age somewhat higher than 16. They also noted that some of the pirates -- no one is sure yet who -- opened fire on the Taipan's bridge as they chased the ship. "The captain had to fear for his life," state prosecutors said.

The 10 pirates attacked the Taipan last April about 580 nautical miles from the eastern coast of Somalia. By the time they boarded, Captain Dierk Eggers and his crew had disappeared into a hidden safe room. In the absence of a hostage situation, an elite squad of Dutch marines decided to storm the ship. No one died in the resulting gunfire, and the Dutch arrested the Somalis and freed the Taipan crew. It's considered one of the most successful counter-piracy operations since international navies started patrolling off the coast of Somalia in 2008.

No Birth Certificates

Since then, though, the case has become decidedly less clear-cut. The Dutch insisted on extraditing the Somali prisoners to Germany, because the ship belonged to the Hamburg-based firm Komrowski. And in Hamburg, the pirates are being tried in a juvenile court, even though they're clearly not all juveniles. Just how old they really are, however, is impossible to ascertain with certainty. The Somali government collapsed 20 years ago and none of the pirates have birth certificates.

Youssef M. claims to be 16. Court-appointed medical experts, however, argue that he's closer to 18 or 19, based on dental examinations and skeletal X-rays. How the question is resolved will play a significant role when it comes to sentencing.

His personal circumstances might matter, too. Last week Youssef M. told the court that he was tricked into joining the pirate gang.

"I was born the youngest of eight children," in northeastern Somalia, he said, and lost his parents and half his family in accidents or acts of war -- two sisters killed by a grenade, a brother run over by a bus. "When I was nine or 10 years old, my brother brought me to the harbor, where I started to work odd jobs. Most of the work was loading or unloading ships."

'Have to Be Watched'

At 13, Youssef M. said, he worked as a night watchman for a fishing boat. "I received a wage of less than one US dollar per night," he said through his lawyer. "The situation in Somalia is such that almost anything that can be stolen, will be stolen. People live in great need, so fishing boats have to be watched."

A year later, in 2007, he became a fisherman. The work was hard and the pay was scarce, he said. "Many times I found work for days or even weeks, but sometimes there was no work for days, and I went hungry. When I had work, I could sleep on the boat. Otherwise I slept on the street," he said. "Overall the situation was very difficult."

In March 2010 a strange man came to him in the harbor where he worked and asked if Youssef wanted to pilot a boat. The work involved running a wooden motorboat as a shuttle for people and goods along the shore. "I worked several days as a sort of taxi driver on the sea," said Youssef, for the equivalent of two or three US dollars per day, which he considered good pay. By then he was already working in one of the skiffs that would attack the Taipan, he said. "Then the man asked if I was ready for a bigger job. It would pay a flat $500."


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