Pirate Threat Persists After Hijacked Tanker’s Release

By Ilya Kramnik

On the night of May 6, 2010, commandos from the Marshal Shaposhnikov anti-submarine warfare (ASW) ship of the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet, on an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, stormed the Moscow University oil tanker that was seized yesterday by Somali pirates and released her 23 crewmembers.

The Russian tanker, owned by the Novorossiisk Shipping Company (Novoship), carrying 86,000 metric tons of crude oil, was hijacked by Somalian pirates in the morning of May 5, while sailing from the Red Sea to China.

The crew signaled that speedboats full of armed men were approaching their vessel. After that, communications with the tanker were lost. The crew, however, managed to barricade themselves inside one of the ship’s below-deck sections, and switch off her propulsion unit and rudder control system.

The pirates declared they had captured the ship and warned that crewmembers’ lives would be in danger if any attempt to board her were made. However, they were unable to reach the crew or reactivate the tanker’s engines.

The Marshal Shaposhnikov covered over 300 nautical miles and was approaching the Moscow University. After assessing the situation, the officers learned that the tanker’s crew was in a safe place, hiding, and that the pirates were unable to control the ship. They prepared to storm the tanker.

The ASW ship’s marine unit has been specially trained and had conducted several hostage-release exercises in preparation for its current tour of duty. Consequently, the ship was seized quickly and without a hitch. The marines approached the tanker in speedboats and quickly disarmed the pirates, killing one of them. No soldiers or sailors were injured.

The Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office has opened a criminal case under article 227 of the Criminal Code, which deals with piracy. The hapless “gentlemen of fortune” will be put on trial in Moscow.

This incident highlights the problem of legal support for anti-piracy operations and makes it possible to assess the effectiveness of the fight against pirates.

Under article 227 of the Russian Criminal Code, pirates may face up to 15 years in prison. The life of an inmate in a Russian prison camp is more comfortable than life in Somalia, in addition to which they are eligible for parole. There are also many pirates who want to serve their prison terms in EU countries, hoping that they will be allowed to stay there upon release.

Most curiously, the pirates would have faced tougher punishment if they were captured before the criminal case in Russia had been opened. In that case, they would likely have been extradited to Yemen, which summarily hangs all pirates caught prowling the sea, weapons in hand.

As a rule, Russian and foreign navies aim to prevent ships from being hijacked and their actions are seldom crowned with such an outstanding success involving the arrest of hijackers aboard the seized vessel as that of May 6. However, this remains a struggle against the symptoms of the disease, rather than the disease itself. Piracy is a very profitable business. These “gentlemen of fortune” continue to seize new ships and their crews, releasing them for ransom.

This situation stands in stark contrast to the global repercussions of the major volcanic events in April 2010 at the Eyjafjallajokull ice cap in southern Iceland. Air travel across western and northern Europe was disrputed for an initial period of six days. Although ash clouds did not pose an immediate danger, as many had feared, it caused all-out panic, with many European countries promptly banning all air traffic.

The reason for this ban is obvious: 90% of airline passengers flying over Europe are EU citizens, and their mass death in case of such evident force majeure circumstances is fraught with serious political consequences. Against this backdrop, European politicians care little about the threat of pirate attacks on the crews of merchant-marine ships, who are usually recruited from developing countries, the least prosperous European states, such as Greece or Romania, or even from major powers that are outside the EU including Ukraine, Russia and India.

At the same time, the scale of piracy has not yet reached frightening dimensions and business community remains unconcerned about it. As a result, the crews of civilian ships are escorted by relatively few warships, which are unable to effectively protect all shipping in the region. All they can do is use the theory of probability to try to predict possible attacks on specific freighters, container carriers or tankers.

This situation once again highlights the importance of cooperation between countries combating piracy on a tactical level off the Somali coast and at the level of official agencies. There has to be a standard set of regulations making it possible to fight piracy. The pirates’ future should not depend on the national affiliation of warships seizing them.

One possible solution would be to pass an international code stipulating the punishment for the various crimes, the court proceedings and execution of verdicts. Once again, EU prisons are unlikely to scare Somalian pirates who will not face famine or possible death there, as they do in their home country torn apart by civil war.

But tougher penalties are not enough to achieve results. As has often been said, any successful anti-piracy struggle should be based on the normalization of the situation in war-torn Somalia, military operations against pirates in coastal areas and a strict crackdown on the financial infrastructure of crime rings profiting from piracy. Just as was the case centuries ago, piracy and aiding pirates must once again become a capital offense.

Unfortunately, Europe’s modern mindset prevents EU countries from recalling their own anti-piracy efforts in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries when captured pirates were either thrown overboard or tried by national courts and inevitably executed. Quite possibly, this situation could be rectified through cooperation between Russia, the United States, China and the Arab world, none of whom worship human life to the absurd extent of dismissing a justified penalty for grave crimes.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti, where this article was first published.

Ria Novosti

RIA Novosti is Russia's leading news agency in terms of multimedia technologies, website audience reach and quoting by the Russian media.

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