Alleged Somali pirates stand trial in Germany

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Ten alleged Somali pirates went on trial in Germany on Monday facing 15 years in prison, but experts believe the case will do little to make the waters off the Horn of Africa any safer.

In Germany's first piracy trial in some 400 years, the Somalis, the youngest believed to be 17 and the oldest 48, are accused to attempting to hijack the German container ship MS Taipan in April.

The Dutch navy boarded the ship some 900 kilometres (560 miles) off Somalia after a brief exchange of gunfire, with the 15 crew members hiding in a so-called "panic room."

The suspects were flown to the Netherlands from Djibouti, after Germany issued European arrest warrants for them, and a Dutch court then ruled in June they could be extradited to Germany.

Piracy is a growing problem off the coast of lawless Somalia, with both the number of attacks and the ransoms demanded spiking over the past two years, according to the London-based International Maritime Bureau.

Twenty-three vessels and 500 crew are currently held by Somali pirates, the bureau said.

The pirates have been bagging millions of dollars in ransoms for boats seized around the Gulf of Aden, though warships from various countries including Germany patrolling the passage have overpowered some.

Nor do they restrict themselves to commercial shipping, preying also on yachts such as that owned by British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler, released last week after a 13-month ordeal.

But even if the pirates are caught, the lack of central rule in Somalia since a 1991 civil war makes it impossible to put them on trial there, experts say.

A lawyer specialising in maritime law, Isabelle Corbier, said suspects arrested in international waters fall into a "legal void".

Kenya, which last year signed a deal with western states to try suspected pirates in its courts, was forced to acquit 26 suspected Somali pirates this month and said handling the cases was too big a burden.

Dieter Berg, head of marine underwriting at Germany's Munich Re, the world's biggest reinsurer, said the German trial was also unlikely to deter others from joining the Horn of Africa's most lucrative business.

"It's a high-profit, low-risk game," he said.

Another expert, Anja Shortland, who studies piracy at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), said that for a Somali pirate to be tried in the West "might be the ultimate prize rather than a deterrent."

"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," she said.

"It is rather unlikely that the trial in Hamburg will have any major effect on the general problem," agreed Niels Stolberg, president of the Beluga Shipping Company, which has seen several of its ships attacked.

© 2010 AFP

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