Hamburg trial of suspected Somali pirates begins

Media caption,
Ten Somali men sit with their lawyers as the trial in Hamburg opened

Ten men from Somalia have gone on trial in Hamburg, in Germany's first piracy trial for about 400 years.

They are charged with attempting to seize a German container ship in April off the coast of Somalia.

Piracy is a growing problem in the seas off the Horn of Africa, despite increased international efforts to patrol the area.

The International Maritime Bureau says 23 vessels and about 500 crew are currently being held by Somali pirates.

The defendants appeared relaxed as they took their seats in the courtroom, each flanked by two defence lawyers. The proceedings were translated to them over headphones.

However, the trial got off to a slow start with the court taking more than 45 minutes to determine the spelling and pronunciation of the accused's names.

The case is being held before a juvenile court as several of the accused say they were under 18 at the time of the alleged offence.

Most only know the year of their birth, making it difficult for the court to ascertain their ages.

Defence lawyers issued a joint statement saying the real cause of piracy in the region was political unrest in Somalia and over-fishing of its waters by Western nations.

Several of the accused say they are fishermen.

The men in the dock are accused of boarding and attempting to seize the MS Taipan on 5 April in the Gulf of Aden, about 900km (560 miles) off the Somali coast.

The Taipan crew sent out an emergency call, stopped the ship's engine and locked themselves in the security room for several hours.

Dutch troops from an anti-piracy vessel recaptured the hijacked ship after an exchange of gunfire, and then handed the men to the German authorities.

High-profit game

Suspected pirates captured in this region had previously been tried in Kenya but authorities there complained they could not cope with all of the cases which were being brought.

Defendants are now being tried in the country where the affected ship is registered.

But Dieter Berg, of Munich Re reinsurance company, says many pirates are simply released.

"It's a high-profit, low-risk game" for pirates, Mr Berg told AFP news agency. He said that it was important that pirates should face trial but too few countries were prepared to deal with such difficult cases.

But others have raised the question of whether trying suspected pirates in the West might be more of an incentive than a deterrent.

Image caption,
Dozens of ships have been attacked by Somali pirates in recent years

"Spending three, five, even seven years in a European or American jail followed by political asylum - you can't do much better as a Somali man," said Anja Shortland from the German Institute for Economic Research.

According to an expert in the insurance industry, some shipping companies now pay a premium of $15,000 (£9,350) per voyage for insurance against a $5m ransom.

On top of that, there is the multi-million dollar cost of negotiations and helicopters to drop ransom money.

Hamburg has a historical association with piracy, and authorities erected a statue of the city's most famous pirate, Klaus Stoertebeker, who gained notoriety in the late 14th Century.

Hundreds of suspected pirates were put on trial in Hamburg between the 14th and 17th centuries. Back then, the penalty was execution, usually by beheading.

The BBC's Stephen Evans in Berlin says the 10 Somali men will escape that fate but could face 15 years in prison if they are convicted.

The case is expected to last several months.

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