The trial of an alleged Somali pirate kingpin has begun in the Belgian city of Bruges. Following his spectacular arrest, Mohamed Abdi Hassan was charged with hijacking a Belgian ship and leading a criminal organization.
Known as "Afweyne," or "Big Mouth," and allegedly the most influential leader of a Somali pirate network, Mohamed Abdi Hassan was missing from the benches behind the defense as the trial against him opened at the criminal court in Bruges, Belgium.
"We have decided not to appear because the prosecution has added 2,500 pages to the dossier and we were only notified of this two days ago," defense attorney Hans Rieder said. "But these new documents are very important because they challenge Mr. Hassan's alibi."
Rieder said his client would plead not guilty to the charges of hijacking the Belgian ship MS Pompei in 2009 and heading up a criminal organization.
Behind the defense lawyer's bench and next to a translator sat Hassan's alleged accomplice, Mohamed Moalin Aden, known as "Tiicey." According to a 2014 report to the UN Security Council by the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, Tiicey - the self-proclaimed president of a region in Somalia - aided the pirates' activities by facilitating communications and ransom payments.
Report sees responsibility for many hijackings
According to the UN report, Abdi Hassan "has been involved in the piracy business at least since 2005. He is considered to be responsible for at least 24 hijacking and abduction cases."
Among those is the case of the Belgian stone carrier Pompei, for which he is on trial in Bruges.
En route from South Africa to Dubai in the Indian Ocean, just north of the Seychelles, the MS Pompei and its crew of 10 were captured in April 2009, to be released only after two months and following the payment of a ransom that is said to have amounted to about 2 million euros.
On Thursday, prosecutor Marianne Cappelle sketched at length the terrifying experience the crew of the Pompei lived through, being held at gunpoint outside the ship's bridge for the first four days and nights.
Arrest following undercover operation
Both Abdi Hassan and alleged facilitator Moadil Aden were arrested following a sting operation by the Belgian police.
"We asked him if he would be prepared to act as an adviser on a film project on maritime piracy," federal prosecutor Johan Delmulle said following Abdi Hassan's October 2013 arrest.
Building up a relationship of trust with Moadil Aden over months, and through him with Abdi Hassan, the Belgian undercover agents managed to lure the two to Brussels, where they were arrested upon disembarking from their flight.
"I think that [the sting operation] proves that the Belgian authorities tried to do everything to prove international trustworthiness," said defense counsel Rieder, who said the entire undertaking amounts to "a show trial."
Show trial or not, a conviction would carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for the defendants.
Abdi Hassan, however, could easily appeal that decision because Belgian law allows an appeal in cases in which the defendant is sentenced in absentia - even though the absence in this case was by choice.