Adjudicating Somali Piracy Cases – German Courts in a Double Bind

The recent increase in piracy trials before domestic courts in Europe and beyond – also including courts in the Netherlands, Italy, France, and the United States – is the result of intensified efforts to fight piracy off the Horn of Africa. In 2008, the Somali government had asked the UN Security Council for support in this regard. The UN Security Council reacted to the request by passing resolutions 1814 (15 May 2008), Resolution 1816 (2 June 2008) and 1838 (7 October 2008), which authorised UN member states to take measures to fight piracy in Somali waters. The resulting international anti-piracy efforts are led by the EU’s ATALANTA operation (EU-NAVFOR Somalia), which the Council of the EU established by means of EU Council Joint Action 2008/851 and EU Council Decision 2008/918, on 8 December 2008. Since 2009 ATALANTA’s efforts are further reinforced by NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield and the US-led Combined Task Force (CTF-151). The international security presence has undoubtedly had a deterrent effect on pirates in the Indian Ocean, which should not be underestimated. Nonetheless, despite the UN Security Council mandates, warships are somewhat reluctant to arrest suspected pirates on the high seas, possibly anticipating the legal difficulties related to their treatment back home. For instance, the German navy – following orders by German or EU authorities – has repeatedly released suspected pirates for lack of authority over them (for press reports see here and here).

In view of President Guillaume’s statement in the Arrest Warrant case that piracy is the only true case of universal jurisdiction under customary international law (p. 37, para. 5), the reluctance of states to arrest and try suspected pirates might come as a surprise. Indeed, Cicero already characterized pirates as “enemies of all peoples” (hostes humani generis in De Officiis iii 29) and piracy is nowadays considered ius cogens. The details of this ius are fleshed out in Articles 101 to 107 and 110 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Article 101 of UNCLOS defines piracy as consisting of (a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, committed for private ends, against a ship, aircraft, property of persons (i) on the high seas or (ii) outside the jurisdiction of any state. Paragraphs (b) and (c) of Article 101 of UNCLOS also include voluntary participation and incitement or intentional facilitation in the definition of piracy. According to Article 105 of UNCLOS, the capturing warship may send pirates for trial before its own courts, thus recognizing that states have universal jurisdiction. Nonetheless, Article 105 of UNCLOS does not establish an obligation for the capturing state or third states to bring pirates to trial (see Douglas Guilfoyle’s analysis on EJIL:Talk! here) and domestic courts are generally hesitant to establish jurisdiction in cases of piracy without any direct links with their respective countries. Only few exceptions exist in this regard. In 2010 a Dutch court in Rotterdam held that it had universal jurisdiction over five Somali pirates arrested by a Danish frigate (for the English press release see here), and in the 2012 decision in United States v. Ali a US Court found that a Somali interpreter could be lawfully subject to domestic prosecution on counts of aiding and abetting acts of piracy even without a nexus with the US. Most recently, on 18 October 2012, a Court of Appeal in Nairobi referred to universal jurisdiction under international law when repealing a controversial 2010 judgment in which a lower court had held that Kenyan courts had no jurisdiction to try suspects of piracy charges allegedly committed in the Indian Ocean beyond Kenya’s territorial waters (for a detailed news report see here).

The Hamburg criminal court chose a similar approach to justify its jurisdiction over the ten Somali pirates, but also referred to the fact that German nationals were affected by the criminal acts at sea. In addition to international law considerations, German jurisdiction over the pirates – and in particular the jurisdiction of the Hamburg court – was also based on the German Code of Criminal Procedure. The determination of the court of jurisdiction for criminal acts committed on ships and planes is regulated in section 10 of that Code. Accordingly, criminal acts at sea are adjudicated by the court in whose district the ship’s home port is located. More precisely, section 10 (as translated by gesetze-im-internet.de) provides: “If the criminal offence was committed outside the territorial scope of this statute on a ship authorized to fly the Federal flag, the competent court shall be the court in whose district the ship’s home port is located, or the port within the territorial scope of this statute first reached by the ship after commission of the offence.”

Despite the fact that the Somalis had violently attacked a German ship, the lengthy (105 days in court) and complex trial in Hamburg was heavily criticized by the German public, mainly for reasons related to the overall purpose and costs of this “non-sense justice” (see the comment on Spiegel Online here). The defence argued that the detention of the pirates was already unlawful because the Somalis were not brought before a German judge without while being detained on the Dutch warship Tromp. However, the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) – on the basis of which the Hamburg decision may ultimately be checked – allows for some degree of flexibility. The potential limits of this flexibility were determined in the above-mentioned Rotterdam case, in which the Dutch court found that the waiting period of 40 days delay between the arrest of the Somali pirates and the hearing by a judge violated Article 5 of the ECHR (see in this regard the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Rigopoulos v. Spainand Medvedyev v. France).

Besides procedural concerns, substantive human rights considerations arguably weighed more heavily in the Hamburg proceedings. Several of the pirates pleaded that they were coerced to commit acts of piracy; others had argued that they did not have other possibilities to make a living under the harsh conditions in Somalia. The Hamburg court rejected these arguments in light of the available evidence, but took into account the dire living conditions in Somalia in determining the different sentences. However, while dire living conditions per se can certainly not have an exculpatory function, the application of German criminal law to Somalis that have never set foot on European soil before their trial in Hamburg has rightly resulted in considerable criticism. German media have repeatedly pointed out that the suspects – some of them possibly under age – were unfit for a trial before German courts. When asked for his birth details, for instance, one pirate stated that he was born “under a tree” or “during the rainy season”. Considering this criticism from a more legal point of view, a look at the relatively dense case law of the European Court of Human Rights on the principle of legality may indeed reveal that the Hamburg decision does not comply with established standards such as accessibility and foreseeability of the applicable law. Although the Somalis were certainly aware of their wrongdoing when capturing the Taipan, they could not expect their possible punishment under German criminal law, and act accordingly. In fact, the Hamburg court issued sentences much shorter than those requested by the prosecution – a decision that might also have been based on legal, and not only socio-economic, reasons. More generally, the adjudication of Somali piracy cases calls into question the aims of criminal justice, in particular with regard to post-detention re-integration into society.

Interestingly, another German court has taken a more human rights friendly stance about a year before the Hamburg decision. On 11 November 2011, a German administrative court in Cologne ruled that Germany had violated the prohibition of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment (Articles 3 ECHR and 7 ICCPR) by transferring Somali pirates to Kenya, who had previously been arrested for suspected acts of piracy by the German frigate “Rheinland-Pfalz” acting in the framework of ATALANTA (the judgement is available here). The reason why the suspected pirates were transferred to Kenya was an Exchange of Letters between the European Union and the Government of Kenya on the conditions and modalities for the transfer of persons suspected of piracy, which was approved by the Council of the EU on 26 February 2009 (Council Decision 2009/293/CFSP).

The German court rejected two other claims by the plaintiffs that the arrest and detention on the Rheinland-Pfalz were in violation of international and German constitutional law, thereby explicitly discussing arguments also brought forward in the Hamburg case regarding universal jurisdiction under UNCLOS (paras. 29-34 of the Cologne judgment) and procedural detention standards under the ECHR and the German Basic Law (paras 35-48 of the Cologne judgment).

As much as the decision of the Hamburg court has been criticized, the court arguably was in a double bind. On the one hand, it was clear from the facts that the suspects had hijacked the German ship – much clearer than in the above-mentioned case before the Cologne court that dealt with German responsibility for the transfer of suspected pirates. On the basis of the available evidence, the Hamburg court did therefore not really have the option to acquit and release the pirates despite possible rule of law violations. On the other hand, the alternative solution of sending the pirates back for trial in Somalia or Kenya was equally not available, for reasons illustrated by the judgement of the Cologne administrative court. In other words, the German court was faced with conflicting human rights considerations. While the respect for the principle of legality, including the foreseeability and accessibility of the law, might have warranted the transfer of the suspected pirates Somalia or Kenya, concerns of possible degrading and inhuman treatment in these countries prevented such an approach. Either road taken by the German Court would have lead to wrongful results, possibly engaging Germany’s responsibility for different human rights violations.

In this context, it is noteworthy that not only Germany would run the risk of incurring international responsibility. The pirates were handed over to German authorities by the Netherlands. Moreover, both the Netherlands and Germany acted under the auspices of ATALANTA and under a Security Council mandate. Indeed, the fact that the German warship Rheinland-Pfalz was part of the EU’s ATALANTA mission played a role in the proceedings before the Cologne administrative court. On the basis of the Behrami and Saramati decision of the ECtHR, Germany pleaded that it was acting under the control of ATALANTA so that the transfer was attributable to the European Union. After investigating the factual details based on the Behrami standard, however, the Cologne court found that the decision to hand over the arrested Somalis to Kenya was attributable to Germany. The court thereby took into consideration that four German ministries had convened to decide about the transfer of the Somalis to Kenya and that the German ministry of defence had given ordered the Rheinland-Pfalz to head for Mombasa (paras. 49-57 of the Cologne judgment). In this regard, it also did not make a difference for the court that Kenya provided assurances and guarantees with regard to human rights protection in the country, and also granted the EU extensive rights of supervision and control in this regard in the above-mentioned Exchange of Letters that was approved by the EU only a few days before the transfer.

When adjudicating piracy, domestic courts are put in a position where they almost inevitably violate human rights standards. This inacceptable situation provides additional support to the on-going debate whether piracy should be regulated on a broader scheme. For instance, it has been suggested to establish international or regional tribunals to take care of piracy cases. Alternatively, piracy cases could be handled by another Hamburg court, the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). Since ITLOS only has jurisdiction over states and international organizations, the implementation of such a proposal would require some inventive talent. An international instance with jurisdiction over individuals is the International Criminal Court in The Hague. However, the suggestion of including piracy in the Rome Statute has been rejected. In the absence of any immediate political solutions to address the root causes of piracy in failed states, the number of piracy cases before domestic courts is thus likely to increase. As a matter of fact, nine out of ten Somali pirates filed an appeal against the decision of the Hamburg court. It remains to be seen whether the competent Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof), the highest German appellate court in civil and criminal matters, will be able to untie the knot in which the lower courts are wound up.

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