Winning: Pirates Fought The Law, And The Law Lost

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May 29, 2011: India has gone head-to-head with Somali pirate leaders, and lost. From now on, the Indian navy will no longer arrest Somali pirates it encounters, even those caught in the act of attacking a ship. Instead, the pirates will be disarmed and allowed to go back to Somalia. If the pirate vessel is not seaworthy, the Indian warship will take the pirates back to Somalia, where they will be left on the beach. This is the same "catch and release" method used by most European navies, mainly because the legal systems back home make it difficult for the pirates to be prosecuted, and easy for the pirates to claim asylum if brought back.

The Indian policy change began on April 15, when the pirates released a tanker, after the ransom was paid. But seven of the eight Indians on the 15 man crew were not released. The pirates demanded that India release 120 pirates held in India, if they wanted these seven Indian sailors freed. This outraged the shipping companies, who expect the pirates to keep their promises to free ships and sailors once the ransom has been paid. India first reacted by sending a warship to where it was believed the seven Indian sailors were being held. This did not impress the pirates. Negotiations ensued.

Meanwhile, another 53 Indian sailors were being held on five different ships, and there was fear that not all of these will be released, even if ransom was paid. The TNG (Transitional National Government) ordered its ambassador to India to speak to the 120 pirates, to determine if all of them are actually Somali. They were. The police in Mumbai had found the prisoners uncooperative, and none of them have any Identity documents. The TNG  offered to take the prisoners, if they were Somali. But the Indians were not sure that was a good idea, as the deported pirates could be freed in Somali via bribes. At the same time, India did not like the idea of prosecuting, and imprisoning the captured pirates, and perhaps hundreds, or thousands, more. This may be why Indian warships off Somalia are more frequently opening fire on pirates they encounter, rather than arresting them. It’s not known if India has agreed to refrain from firing on Somali pirates as well.

What India is most concerned with here is the safety of Indian sailors (who comprise about ten percent of the merchant ship sailors operating in the Indian Ocean). Then there's the media angle. If the pirates murder the seven Indian sailors still held, the Indian government will be blamed. The new policy (and probably having the 120 imprisoned pirates quietly shipped back to a Somali beach) is much less likely to generate unflattering headlines for the government.

 


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