Sea Transportation: The Pirate Fishermen of Somalia



February 19, 2006: The trial of the Somali pirates, captured in January by the USS Winston Churchill, is underway in Mombasa, Kenya. Some of the defense lawyers are arguing that Kenya has no jurisdiction in the case. This is at best disingenuous. When Churchill turned the prisoners over to Kenyan authorities, it was in keeping with long-standing maritime tradition and law, most recently enshrined in several U.N. sponsored agreements, that suspected pirates can be tried in any country, since it is a "universal crime."

Attempts at providing a defense for the ten pirates have been wandering all over the map of late, with claims that the men were merely fisherman who boarded the small Indian freighter on which they were capture because they were looking to buy spare parts or maybe fuel, or even that they were members of the Somali coast guard, a dodge apparently used by several warlord-connected pirate gangs. The Somali pirates were fishermen, when they were not pirates. This is a common pattern, both now and historically.

Meanwhile, despite the greater publicity given to piracy during 2005, in fact the incidence of successful pirate attacks that year was on 12, in contrast to 38 during 2004. Among the reasons analysts give for the greatly reduced number of ships taken by pirates during 2005 is increased maritime surveillance, partially the result of greater cooperation among affected states (notably Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore and some of their neighbors), greater attention to the problem by Coalition naval patrols in the Indian Ocean, and the December 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, that apparently wiped out a number of pirate bases.

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