23 June 2011

The trial so far

What happened so far

Since November 22, 2010 ten Somali men have been standing trial in Hamburg. They are charged with having hijacked the freighter “MV Taipan” in the Indian Ocean and demanding ransom over Easter 2010.

The Taipan was sailing under German flag and the men were captured by a special unit of the Dutch navy – although no one has been able to tell the court of who actually ordered them to do so. The ten men were chained to the railing on the Dutch frigate “Tromp” for several days and interrogated – voluntary statements, according to the Dutch crew. The commander of the Tromp insists that they didn't arrest the men, they merely 'found' them on board the Taipan – which raises the question of how they ended up in a court if they were never arrested.

They were then brought to the Netherlands. When the ship's owner, the Hamburg company Komrowski, pressed charges, the Dutch authorities were only too happy to hand them over to the Germany judiciary.

Since June 2010, the MV Taipan has been sailing under Liberian flag. That allows the owner to arm the crew, which currently isn't possible when sailing under German flag.

The accused – three of them under age – have been remanded in custody in Hamburg and have been on trial since November 2010. Although they are not receiving any education in prison, they are learning a lot in court everyday about how the German justice system works, how the guns they had with them actually function, what is dangerous and what isn't. The many police witnesses have taught them how they work and what they think about pirates. Involuntary lessons.

During the 30 hearings so far, the court has heard 11 witnesses and 4 expert witnesses.

The first weeks of the trial was occupied with the question of the age of three of the accused, who had stated (and documented) their age as under the legal threshold for criminal prosecution in Germany. For the first time, forensic 'experts' from the Hamburg University Hospital (UKE) have stated in detail their methods of age determination, end never have been questioned so fundamentally by lawyers in court. But despite the discrepancies between the results and despite the contradictions the forensic experts found themselves in, the court believed that they had more credibility than the statements of the families of the accused.

It's a pity that until now, neither the media, nor anti-racist groups managed to generate publicity around this issue. The applications for bail for the three under-age accused have been declined. They are still in prison, although there are youth facilities who are prepared and willing to accommodate them.

The other witnesses – among them crew members from both the Taipan and the Dutch frigate, German police officers and employees of the Dutch defence ministry – have been questioned extensively about the events. Questions relating to the chain of command, who had authorized what and the flow of information largely remained unanswered due to concerns about “military confidentiality”. But we know a lot more about how dangerous a rocket launcher, an AK47 or a SIM card for a Somali phone are.  The extensive weapons display ended on April, 11 with the exhibits being put in large plastic bins and wheeled around the corridors of the court building, and with the knowledge that most of the damage to the Taipan was actually caused by the barrage of fire from the Dutch commando while providing cover to the soldiers when they abseiled from a helicopter.

Three of the accused have so far made personal statements. None of them said anything relating to the actual charges, but rather they explained to the court their personal dire circumstances and the reasons why, as a last resort, they participated in the attack in order to feed their families or to escape the revenge of dubious creditors.  A small insight into the reality of a country which we hear about because more and more people flee from it, some to Europe, hoping for a better life. Only a few weeks ago a fishing boat sunk: among those who drowned were more than 50 Somali children.
One of the accused told the court about the difficulties of moving around in war-torn Somalia –  between roadblocks at which money has to be paid to gangs in order to get past. It's no wonder, similar things happen on the water. As one of them said: “In Somalia, a man with the gun always has the last word”.

The judge, who for months insisted on everything is said slowly in order for the translators to keep up, has recently refused to allow part of the expertise of a witness about the conditions in Somalia to be translated into Somali, with the argument that the language of the court is German. A few hours later, he had to ask for Somali to be spoken louder in the same court, because the microphones were failing.

Either way, for the accused most of what happens remains incomprehensible. This is the same for me. I'm not surprised that the other day one of the accused suddenly asked to be executed, so all this would come to an end. In response, the judge explained that there was no death penalty in Europe. I wonder if this was any comfort to the man, whose son was abducted in Somalia, because he – the father – couldn't repay his debt?

Since mid April we know that a statement of the Dutch navy officer de Wind concerning one of the accused has led to to the accused's brother being abducted and killed.

For the remainder of the trial until November 2011, the court will hear from expert witnesses on the situation in Somalia (European experts, of course) and a psychologist will give an expertise on the mental condition of the accused who had asked to be executed. After 7 months, everything is still open. And time will be required for the ten accused to make statements before the 20 lawyers will hold their closing address.

In the meantime, the situation in Somali waters is coming to a head. A few days ago, the American military killed 4 pirates.

And to date, no one knows what was on board the ship the ten Somalis tried to hijack..