Somali pirates find safety at last in Dutch prison cell
15 May 2009
No, Willem-Jan Ausma has never had to defend a client quite like this: one who is quite happy being in prison, and is almost looking forward to being found guilty and sentenced. "For the first time in his life he has access to a real toilet. For the first time in his life he is in a safe environment," Ausma says about his Somali 'pirate' client.
Sure, 24-year-old Yusuf hasn't seen his family in more than four months. "But he intends to send for his wife and children as soon as he is released from prison. He knows he cannot easily be sent back to Somalia. He loves it here in the Netherlands."
Adrift at sea
Yusuf is one of the defendants in an exceptional court case starting on Monday in Rotterdam. On trial are five Somalis suspected of piracy on the high seas. They stand accused of attempting to hijack the freighter Samanyolu in the Gulf of Aden on January 2 of this year. The Samanyolu had a crew of seven Turks and one Azeri, but it was sailing under the flag of the Dutch Antilles, which are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. That gave the Netherlands a reason to put them on trial in a Dutch court. The Danish navy, which picked up the five Somalis, handed them over to the Netherlands in February.
Requests by NRC Handelsblad to interview the defendants were turned down by the prisons where they've been kept since. But access to the case files, including transcripts of the interrogations, was given by Haroon Raza, who defends Osman (1978). Raza hopes the publicity will help his client's case.
None of the defendants deny that they are pirates. "I'll be honest: it was our intention to hijack a ship," Yusuf said during his first interrogation. They readily admit to having been heavily armed with kalashnikovs and an anti-tank missile. But they claim they abandonned any idea of hijacking a ship after the engine on their boat died, and that the crew of the Samanyolu attacked them first.
For three days, the would-be pirates drifted on the high seas as their water and food supply dwindled. On the third day they met the Samanyolu; they decided to ask for help from its crew. By chance, their boat's engine suddenly came back to life at that moment. "We approached the ship," says Abdirisaq (1977). "We tried to attract the crew's attention by putting our hands in the air. But suddenly shooting came from the ship." They had no choice then but to fire back, says Abdirisaq, "but they were only warning shots".
'Act of despair'
The crew of the Samanyolu tells a different story. They say they only started firing flares and throwing molotov cocktails at the pirates after they had opened fire on the Samanyolu. It was 32-year-old Turkish sailor Deniz Ivdik who threw the molotov cocktail that set fire to the pirates' boat. After the pirates jumped ship the vessel exploded. The Somalis were then picked up by the Danish frigate Absalon, which was responding to an alert sent by the Samanyolu.
According to lawyer Raza, the seamen of the Samanyolu "have some explaining to do". His client claims the Somalis were set up. The crew of the Samanyolu beckoned us to come closer, Osman told his interrogators. "We thought they had understood us and they wanted to save us." That's when someone threw a burning bottle into our boat."
Lawyer Ausma is taking a differrent approach. "The facts speak for themselves," he says. "There is no use denying what happened." Instead, he is aiming for a reduced sentence by appealing to the court's sympathy for what he says was "an act of despair".
The five Somalis all agree on this issue. They say they are poor fishermen who were forced into becoming pirates through poverty and debt. "I did it to make money to pay my debts and feed my family," Sayid (1970) told investigators. "The large fishing boats made it impossible for small fishermen like is to makle a living."
Ever since the central government in Somalia collapsed following the fall of dictator Siad Barre in 1991, European and Asian trawlers have stepped into the void to fish at will for squid, crab and tuna in the Indian Ocean. "It is an emotional issue for us. They took away our living," said Yusuf. After this remark, the investigator noted: "Suspect briefly starts crying."
Experts point to the high degree of organisation among Somali pirates. The actual pirates are usually controlled by gang leaders with contacts abroad. In exchange for part of the ransom - 1 milllion dollars per ship on average - corrupt businessmen provide the pirates with navigation equipment and weapons. The United Nations says local authorities in Somalia are also involved.
Yusuf told investigators that he found out about the quick money to be made with piracy "through the radio and from talking to other villagers". He named a certain "Boyah" - possibly Abshir Boyah, a 43-year-old pirate leader who told The New York Times last week that he is responsible for at least twenty-five hijackings.
Boyah, who lives in Gaarowe, the capital of semi-autonomous Puntland, also claims to be a member of a secretive pirate council called "The Corporation." Garoowe is a logistics base for the pirates; it is also where the pirates spend their money on expensive cars, big houses and beautiful girls.
Deniz Ivdik, one of the sailors on the Samanyolu, has little sympathy for the Somali pirates. Ever since it happened, Ivdik says, "I can't sleep at night and I have panick attacks." Ali Tenes, the 32-year-old cook of the Samanyolu, has a similar story. "I can't afford to stop working, but ever since the atack I am very frightened," he says.
Lawyer Ausma says his client knows that there is no chance that he will be acquitted. But he is "hopeful" about his future as a free man living in the Netherlands.
Click to view image: '8333e24aae7e-engpirates_224741e.jpg'
|Liveleak on Facebook|