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A Somali pirate, in orange shirt, is escorted by Malaysian police officers as he leaves Bukit Jalil Police Station in Kuala Lumpur
Seven Somalis hijacked a Malaysian tanker transporting oil worth over 10 million dollarsImage: AP

Somali pirates may face death penalty in Malaysia

February 11, 2011

Seven Somali pirates were charged with firearm offences in a Malaysian court on Friday. It is the first such case in an Asian country.


The Somalis, some as young as 15 years old, were captured in January after they had attempted to hijack a Malaysian-owned chemical tanker in the Gulf of Aden, carrying lubricating oil worth approximately 13 million dollars. During the hijack attempt, the seven pirates took 23 Filipino crew members captive. The Malaysian naval commandos responsible for protecting the vessel stormed the tanker and freed the crew. The pirates shot at the commandos but no injuries were reported.

Asia’s first to charge Somali pirates

A Malaysian police officer brings out an accused Somali pirate from a bus
Malaysia's charge against the pirates might inspire other nationsImage: AP

Now the Malaysian prosecutors are charging the Somalis with using firearms against Malaysian armed forces personnel with the intention of causing death or harm. If convicted, the men will be sentenced to death by hanging. Prosecutors also said that this penalty would be modified into prison terms for the three Somalis who are still under 15 years of age.

In the Kuala Lumpur Magistrate’s Court, the handcuffed Somalis wearing bright orange overalls did not enter any plea. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 15. Attorney-General Mohammad Abazafree Abbas is confident about having a strong case.

Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center in the Malaysian capital, supported the government’s decision to prosecute the pirates. He said that this would show the Somali pirates that the international community was becoming more serious about ending the problem.

Real trouble starts after the arrest

For years pirates operating off the coast of Somalia have hijacked vessels in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden - a body of water between Somalia and Yemen that serves as the main sea route between Europe and Asia.

Prosecution often fails because lack of jurisdiction
Prosecution often fails because lack of jurisdictionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

South Korea and India are also holding a number of people suspected of piracy, but have yet to charge them. Last month Somali pirates hijacked a South Korean chemical tanker in the Arabian Sea. The ship and its crew were rescued by the South Korean navy in a dramatic raid six days later. The five captured pirates were taken to the southern port of Busan and were formally arrested for suspected maritime robbery, attempted murder and ship hijacking. The South Korean government has said they may face up to lifetime imprisonment.

The effort to bring pirates to court often fails because many countries hesitate to pay the cost of the trial and imprisonment. Other countries also fear that the pirates might try to claim asylum. Therefore many suspected pirates detained by the navies are released after being disarmed. The lack of the legal infrastructure in conflict-torn Somalia is making criminal prosecution of pirates more difficult.

International effort to stop piracy

Somali pirates on trial in Hamburg court
Germany prosecuted Somali pirates in 2010Image: dapd

But around the world, efforts are on to tackle the piracy crisis off lawless Somalia by the judiciary. United Nations officials have suggested setting up specialized courts in Somaliland and Puntland (both regions in northern Somalia), and at Arusha in Tanzania to prosecute the pirates using Somali law.

Kenya and the Seychelles, which have succeeded in prosecuting dozens of pirates handed over by foreign navies, have said that they would have difficulties handling the trials if all of the seized pirates were sent to them.

Author: Anggatira Gollmer (Reuters, AP, AFP)

Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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