Homesick Somali 'pirates' grilled in French court
The French court trying six alleged pirates this week has struggled to grasp the reality of the men's lives in faraway Somalia, before special forces arrested them aboard a hijacked yacht.
French troops captured the men, today aged between 21 and 35, after they allegedly hijacked the yacht, the Carre d'As IV, off the Somali coast in 2008 and took a French couple hostage. A seventh suspect was killed in the rescue.
The Somali suspects now face life sentences in a French prison -- a starkly different place from anything they have known -- if convicted of hijacking, kidnapping and armed robbery, in the first such trial to be held in France.
A court psychiatrist noted the mental difficulties some of the detainees were having, thousands of kilometres from their families, while prosecutors have sought to show that the men were not driven to piracy by poverty.
Three days into their trial, on Thursday, the men appeared more relaxed about the proceedings, with three interpreters translating from and to Somali.
"How much did your job as fisherman earn you a month? During questioning you said 100 dollars a month?" asked court president Nadia Ajjan.
"It wasn't regular," replied one of the accused. "Sometimes we made nothing, the nets were empty, neither fish nor sharks, we went home empty handed."
When they did catch sharks, they sent the fins to China and the meat to South Africa, one of the alleged pirates said.
Prosecutor Anne Obez-Vosgien pointed out that during questioning the fisherman said he made a decent living, suggesting he was not forced by poverty to go into piracy to feed his family.
One of the accused said he also transported khat, a mildly narcotic plant that is hugely popular around Somalia and Yemen.
"It's one of the biggest businesses in Somalia," the accused said, with one of his fellows stressing that khat is "not a drug" but helps to "pacify the spirit."
The defendants explained how Somalia, torn by civil war since 1991, was no longer a functioning state, with neither work, nor administration nor fishing cooperatives.
"It became individualistic, the free market," said one, before the questioning moved on to family matters, with most of the accused having no news from their loved ones since they were arrested.
"You got married at 15, why so young? Did you have the means?" asked Ajjan.
"My aunt arranged for me to marry her daughter... we needed someone to help at home so we weren't going to refuse," the young man said.
He learned while he was detained in France that his wife had had twin daughters, whom he has never met.
The young man said on Wednesday that he was one of 22 siblings and his mother was deranged despite attempts to "release her from the spell."
He insisted his job was only to cook for the crew and told the doctor that he could not "make a value judgment about acts of piracy... because he had no reference points."
The court heard how some of the accused were having trouble dealing with their incarceration, so far from home.
"When he was locked up in September 2008 he showed no pathological symptoms," psychiatrist Jean-Claude Archambault said on Wednesday of one of the detainees, Sheikh Nur.
However, six months later, Nur thought he was "the president of Somalia, or he saw the prophet, a white cloud, angels. He set fire to his cell, said he was ready for the ultimate punishment."
Tranquilisers calm him down but "the best treatment would be for him to be back with his family, in his cultural milieu," the doctor said.
Prosecutor Obez-Vosgien pointed out that one of the detainees was handling his incarceration better.
"Sure," said the doctor. "But he has just received a letter from his family, that was enough, to know that someone was thinking of him."
Dozens of ships, mainly merchant vessels, have been seized by gangs off Somalia's 3,700-kilometre (2,300-mile) coastline in recent years.
The pirates travel in high-powered speedboats and are armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. They sometimes hold ships for weeks until they are released for large ransoms paid by governments or owners.
Somali suspects in three other cases are currently awaiting trial in France with the current trial to continue until November 30.
© 2011 AFP