24 January 2012

The “Piracy Trial” in Hamburg – part of European war logic

Translation of an article written by one of the trial observers.

“The prosecution of alleged pirates is an important, deterring part of the actions against piracy” the web site of the German foreign office states under the heading of the EU anti-piracy mission 'Atalanta'. Since November 2010, ten Somali have been standing trial in Hamburg, three of them under-age, having the mentioned deterrence performed on them.

This is the first trial of its kind in Germany. The “alleged pirates” have been remanded in custody for two years and eight months – at first for a week on the Dutch frigate 'Tromp', chained to the deck and subject to dubious interrogations by the military intelligence service, then in a Dutch jail and then in pretrial custody for 17 months. The teenagers are held in the juvenile detention centre 'Hahnöversand', the others in Hamburg's remand prison.

For the court hearings, the under-age defendants are driven across town in a prison van, their hands and feet tied, where they join the others in an underground cell. From there they are brought to the court room, each by one guard. The press sits in the actual court room, the public – whose interest is waning - remains behind a glass wall.

Accompanied by two lawyers each, the defendants follow the proceedings via headphones, for up to six hours with one hour lunch break. Three interpreters translate every word between German and Somali. When a witness speaks in yet anther language, e.g. Dutch, English or Ukrainian, this is first translated into German and then into Somali. This procedure takes time and requires a lot of attention. Sometimes the accused suffer from headaches, but they are still not allowed to take their headphones off. Many of them are traumatised, their health is deteriorating. They can only follow the proceedings with the help of medication.

Some of the accused believed in the good will of the court and in justice and told their depressing stories of survival. They spoke of hunger, violence, war and destruction, the loss parents, siblings or their own children. The three judges and the jury (*) have been listening with interest. They too read the news headlines about the “drought and famine in Somalia”. Still, every application to have the defendants released on bail was declined. When the defendants want to contact their families somewhere in the refugee camps, they pay four Euros per minute for a phone call. There is obviously no real understanding here. And worse: every statement they made regarding the circumstances of the capturing of the German container ship with yet unknown cargo, is turned against them. In its reasoning when declining applications, the court talks about “flight risk”, about the risk of people (who aren't aware of this) “aiding and abetting” their escape and about “severe penalties”. The maximum penalty for adults is 15 years, for under-age accused it's ten years.

In the beginning, the court spent considerable time celebrating dubious ways of determining the age of the accused, then heard some of the crew of the Taipan and gave the Dutch navy officers, including staff of the military intelligence service, the opportunity to tell their heroic tales. The court heard German police officers give their forensic reports and heard white 'expert witnesses' on the situation in Somalia. As soon as that was over, the prosecution declared the trial over and wanted to proceed with the closing statements. At this stage, not even the required expertise from the youth court aid had been presented – despite the fact that the trial is actually a youth trial, owing to the fact that three of the accused are under-age. Moreover, not a single defence witness had been heard! Neither the prosecution nor the judge had made the slightest attempt to find a single witness for the defence. Instead, the defence had put a lot of effort into finding witnesses in Somalia, who would have been able to prove that the accused had been gang-pressed against their will – only to have all this ignored. All their applications to hear these witnesses were declined because there was no formal registration system in Somalia, because no postal service existed in Somalia, because the German embassy allegedly had no facility to skype, because no one could estimate how long it would take to travel from Somalia to Hamburg. The issue at stake here is a question of a guilty or a not guilty verdict.

At this point – at the latest – one had the impression that, as far as the prosecution was concerned, the trial could have been spared, apart from maybe the reading of the charges: “hijacking of a vessel” and “kidnapping”. The verdict seems to have been ready from the beginning. It doesn't seem to matter how impossible 'life' in this far-away country is, or how aggressive and colonial the economic interest of the trade ships, the illegal fishing or the dumping of waste are. The ignorance of the court exposes the trial as a legal farce. The only thing of interest appears to be the severity of the sentence. The purpose is to set an example, to practice deterrencea and to serve the political purpose – as usually in a political trial.

The court had the chance of making history by acquitting and naming the real power relations that are expressed in the so-called piracy off the Somali coast. All that was required would have been to admit the court's own inability to judge the circumstances. But every challenge for bias that was put to the court was declined as a matter of course.

Hamburg, 9 January 2012.