Navy scratching its head over pirates’ fate

While the Indian Navy has every right to arrest pirates anywhere on the high seas, the problem of what to do with them is one that many countries have been struggling with since the upsurge in piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

While the matter of the 23 pirates detained by the INS Mysore has been sorted out with them being handed over to Yemen, the Navy is still unclear as to what it could do if something like this happens again.

 

The INS Mysore, a Delhi-class guided missile destroyer had arrested the pirates when they tried to take over an Ethiopian merchant ship last Saturday in the Gulf of Aden.

 

According to Naval sources while the Indian Navy has every right to arrest pirates anywhere on the high seas, the problem of what to do with them is one that many countries have been struggling with since the upsurge in piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

 

The MV Gibe had sent out a distress call at 11:00 am which was received by the INS Mysore, which sent in armed helicopter-borne commandos, arresting 12 Somalis and 11 Yemeni nationals, and seizing seven AK-47s, three other automatic rifles, 13 loaded magazines, a rocket-propelled grenade-launcher, rockets, cartridges, grenades, three outboard motors and a global positioning system receiver. The operation was over by 12:30 pm.

 

“We tried to get the Yemenis to accept the pirates, but they insisted they will accept only their own nationals. We said we will either transfer all of them or none of them. We didn’t know what to do. Finally they agreed to take them on. This is not a long term solution. We don’t know what to do if this happens again. It seems like we might have to bring them back to India to stand trial. We do have a maritime bench in Mumbai. Maybe they could be tried there,” said a naval source.

 

The Rules of Engagement for the INS Mysore are ambiguous as to the legal position in the eventuality of it finding pirates in its custody. In theory, the INS Mysore could also come back to an Indian port and transfer the pirates to Indian authorities for prosecution.

 

Other nations are facing the problem as well. “Denmark had the same problem some time back. A Danish naval ship had arrested pirates in those waters a few months back. They held them for sometime and then realised they couldn’t charge them with any offence, forget prosecution. They had to let them go,” said the source.

 

In September the Royal Danish Naval frigate the HDMS Absalon was forced to release 10 pirates after holding them for six days as the Danish government was unable to find a way to bring them to justice. This came after ample evidence of piracy was found and some of those arrested had even admitted to being pirates. The Danish government was unable to conclude it had the jurisdiction to prosecute them and has since forbidden its navy from detaining any pirates.

 

The Indian Navy faces the same problem of jurisdiction. “Where there is a situation where the victim ship might be flying a flag from one country, owned by a company in another country, carrying a cargo from a third country and a crew and witnesses consisting of many nationalities and suspects from Somalia or Yemen, the question is which country will prosecute them?” asks the source. Ironically, according to maritime law pirates can be tried by any country. It is the difficulties in conducting a trial of such an international character that requires a policy decision by governments to undertake such responsibilities.

 

The UK has tried to find a way out of this jurisdictional headache by concluding an agreement with Kenya whereby any pirate arrested by a British naval ship will be handed over to the Kenyan government for prosecution.

 

Veteran naval Vice Admiral B Ghose thinks the Indian navy too should try to find a port in the region where the detained pirates can be offloaded. “The Ethiopians have a good naval base. We should just drop them off there,” he said.

 

He also pointed out the earlier Indian experience in dealing with piracy in the Straits of Malacca was quite different. “There we were mostly in involved in escorting ships and deterring piracy. Any arrested pirates would be handed over to countries in the region like Singapore. But those governments are much stronger than around the Gulf of Aden,” he clarified.

 

The Admiral also gave the example of the older British naval practice in the Caribbean sea where pirates were simply disarmed and put back on board the vessel they had planned to plunder, who’s crew simply made the pirates walk the plank. “Of course that is not a solution here. But there are problems in holding these people.  23 is not a small number. If there is a scrap and if by chance someone gets killed there could be more problems. Why get into this drama? It should be avoided. In any case the INS Mysore is not running a ferry service for pirates,” he opines.

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Follow Saurabh Joshi on Twitter @ http://www.twitter.com/saurabhjoshi Saurabh is a journalist based in New Delhi, India who has worked in print, television as well as internet news media. Besides defense and strategy, his past assignments have included reporting from Kashmir, coverage of terror strikes as well as election coverage from all over India. He has a Bachelors degree in Journalism (Honors) as well as a law degree (LLB), both from the University of Delhi.
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