Tuesday, May 22, 2012
PARIS (Reuters) - Six Somali pirates went on trial in Paris on Tuesday charged with hijacking a French yacht in 2008, the second case of its kind to be brought before a French court in a bid to tackle the problem of piracy in the waters off the Horn of Africa.
The men, aged 25 to 50, are accused of hijacking an 88-metre luxury yacht, the "Ponant", in the Gulf of Aden in April 2008, and holding 30 members of its crew hostage in exchange for a ransom of 2.15 million euros ($2.75 million).
Five of the six pirates say they are innocent and played no direct role in the assault, while a sixth pleaded guilty and apologised to the crew, their families and the French nation.
All six men, who listed their professions as taxi-driver, truck driver, accountant and fisherman, face France's toughest jail sentence for kidnapping and hostage-taking. If sentenced to the maximum penalty, they would only be eligible for parole after 18 years of incarceration.
The trial, the second of four to be held in France, is part of an effort to bring more Somali pirates to justice and fight back against piracy which has made the waters off the Horn of Africa some of the world's most dangerous.
In the first trial last November, a Paris court sentenced five Somalis to four to eight years in jail for hijacking the yacht "Carre d'As". A sixth was acquitted.
A state-appointed prosecutor deemed the sentences too lenient and appealed the verdict, opening the way for a second trial. Two further trials are due, concerning a total of ten Somali men accused of hijacking two French ships.
While the number of pirate attacks has fallen in the past year, partly due to concerted action by navies, piracy remains a serious threat to crewmembers navigating along vital shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.
In the case brought to trial on Tuesday, the pirates released the hostages after receiving the ransom money from the yacht's owners, the Marseille-based Compagnie du Ponant.
They were subsequently captured by French commandos just a week later while travelling in a car on the Somali mainland. Only 118,000 euros of the ransom payment was recovered.
The fight to keep shipping lanes open pits Western navies with state-of-the-art equipment against Somali pirates wielding Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket launchers, lured to sea by the prospect of tens of millions of dollars in ransom.
With more than 100 crewmembers currently being held aboard hijacked ships off the eastern coast of Africa, the European Union has stepped up its anti-piracy efforts, launching pre-emptive attacks on pirates at sea and on land.