First piracy trial in 400 years opens in Germany

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Germany's first piracy trial in 400 years opened pm Monday with 10 Somalis facing charges of hijacking a Hamburg-registered ship off the Horn of Africa.

The case, expected to last several months, is being held before a juvenile court as several of the accused say they were under 18 at the time of the alleged offence.

The accused, several of whom say they are fishermen, face maximum sentences of between 10 and 15 years in jail depending on their age.

In piracy trials held centuries ago in this northern German port city, those found guilty were beheaded. Age made no difference to the sentence.

Monday's got off to a slow start with the court taking over 45 minutes to determine the spelling and pronunciation of the names given by the accused.

The ages given were even more of a challenge as most knew only the year of their birth.

One, Abdul Kadir Ahmed Warsami, alleged he was just 13 at the time of the attack and was still in school.

Juveniles in Germany must be at least 14 to face criminal charges.

The eldest accused said he was 48, with others stating ages ranging from 16 and 28.

The gang was arrested by the Dutch navy some three and a half hours after they took over the container ship Taipan off the Somali coast on April 5.

The Taipan's 15-man crew managed to evade capture by the pirates by taking refuge in a so-called "panic room" hidden within the ship.

The accused, some wearing baseball caps and hockey jackets, appeared relaxed as they took their seats in the courtroom, each one flanked by two defence lawyers. The proceedings were translated to them over headphones.

"Their only fear is of the German winter," one of the defence lawyers, Oliver Wallasch, told the press.

"Only one at present has claimed asylum" in Germany, but "I don't know what happens after the trial," Wallasch added.

Defence lawyers issued a joint statement blaming political unrest in Somalia and over-fishing off its waters by western nations as the real causes of piracy in the region.

The problem of piracy can "only be solved through a political solution," they said, adding that "sentencing by this court won't influence piracy in the Indian Ocean."

They also questioned the court's jurisdiction, pointing out that the accused were first taken to the Netherlands where they could also have been put on trial.

According to prosecutors, the accused, armed with automatic rifles and RPG grenade launchers, boarded the Taipan after closing in on it with two speed boats dropped off by a pirate "mother-ship."

The crew of this mother-ship evaded capture by international forces.

The accused allegedly opened fire at the ship, and one rocket-propelled grenade was fired close to the bridge, the prosecution said.

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 around 500 crew members are currently held by Somali pirates, the bureau said.

© 2010 AFP

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