Africa

Trial of alleged Somali pirates opens in Netherlands

A courtroom sketch of the five suspected Somali pirates attending a hearing in a Rotterdam court on 18 May 2010.
Image caption The five men are accused of seeking to hijack a cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden

The first European trial of alleged Somali pirates has opened in the Netherlands.

Five men have denied seeking to hijack a cargo ship registered in the Netherlands Antilles, saying they were on a simple fishing trip.

They were arrested in the Gulf of Aden last year when their high-speed boat was intercepted by a Danish frigate. They face up to 12 years in jail.

Pirates attempted more than 200 attacks off the Somali coast in 2009.

Worldwide, there were an estimated 400 pirate attacks.

'Just fishing'

The five men are being tried in Rotterdam district court. They were arrested in January last year after allegedly preparing to board the cargo ship Samanyolu, which was registered in the Caribbean.

One of the suspects, Farah Ahmed Yusuf, 25, told the court: "The intention was to fish."

During the trip their engine broke down and they tried to get the attention of a passing ship, he said.

"As we came closer, we put our hands in the air. While we had our hands in the air, they shot at us. They attacked us," he said, denying that he or his friends had fired any shots.

The Turkish crew on board the ship testified that the men sped towards the ship, firing with rifles, and that they also fired a rocket at the ship's bridge, but it missed.

The crew say they fired flares at the small boat to keep it at bay until a Danish patrol vessel arrived.

One suspect, Sayid Ali Garaar, 39, pleaded with the court: "I am the victim here. They destroyed my boat and put my life in danger."

Speaking about life in lawless Somalia, he added: "You sleep in your house while I have no country, no family. I have nothing."

The men's lawyers say they will challenge the jurisdiction of Dutch courts to try the case because the cargo vessel was under the flag of the Netherlands Antilles, which has its own justice system.

This trial is expected to last five days, and the judgement is expected to be handed down in the middle of next month.

Death sentence

The trial is being watched closely in other countries seeking a judicial solution to the growing problem of piracy.

Many of the suspects arrested in military operations in the Gulf of Aden in recent years have had to be set free for lack of evidence, while nearby African countries have been reluctant to take on the burden of trials.

Last Tuesday, a Yemeni court sentenced six Somali pirates to death and jailed six others for 10 years each for hijacking a Yemeni oil tanker and killing two cabin crew in April last year.

Also last Tuesday, another Somali, Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, pleaded guilty in a New York court to seizing a US ship and kidnapping its captain last year. He faces a minimum of 27 years in prison, and is expected to be sentenced in October.

Muse is the only surviving attacker of the Maersk Alabama merchant ship off Somalia's coast in April 2009.