Piracy REPORT:Tactics
OP-ED: Laws, Bullets and Jails
Stiff Sentences Show No Effect On Piracy
By SOMALIA REPORT 04/08/2011
Dutch marines capture a group of pirates - File photo
©Netherlands Defence Ministry
Dutch marines capture a group of pirates - File photo

A US Court has sentenced a Somali man to 25 years in prison for piracy, but such sentences are only cracking down on failed pirates, rather than piracy itself.

39-year-old Jama Idle Ibrahim yesterday joined 2,297,400 other prisoners in America's jails when the US District Court for Columbia decided he should serve the maximum penalty of five years in prison on a piracy conspiracy charge, and another maximum penalty of 20 years for firearm conspiracy charge.

The sentence was a foregone conclusion. After being captured in a failed attempt to hijack a warship, Jama pleaded guilty to previously holding the MV CEC Future and its crew from November 7, 2008, to January 16, 2009, successfully collecting $1.7million in ransom for the ship's release.

This was Ibrahim's second conviction, following on from a November, 2010 30-year sentence in Eastern District of Virginia, which came when he pleaded guilty to a very dumb April 10, 2010 attack on the USS Ashland, in the Gulf of Aden. The warship fired back, sinking his skiff. Ibrahim’s “defence” was that the pirates attacked the warship because the vessel they were using to smuggle people sank and they needed a new one. Such candor is refreshing but probably not the best legal strategy.

The sentence from the District of Columbia is to run concurrently with the sentence from Virginia, but it is clear that Ibrahim, if kept in a US penal facility, will be a very expensive guest of the US government for the rest of his useful life.

Jail for pirates all the rage

Ibrahim's sentence is another indication that tough sentencing for pirates in Western courtrooms is becoming the latest legal “must have” to show countries are cracking down or getting tough on piracy. They are not, of course - although such sentences get the headlines. They are getting tough on failed pirates not on the actual crime of piracy.

Somali teenager Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse is another ineffectual pirate who will cost the US taxpayer money in the name of fighting piracy halfway across the world. He is looking forward to 33 years and nine months in a US prison. Muse pleaded guilty last year to charges stemming from his role in the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and the kidnapping of the ship's captain in the Indian Ocean.

His crime was no different than an ugly bank robbery or botched kidnapping. Five-foot-two Muse, one of 12 children, was only 16 when he boarded the Maersk Alabama and terrorized the crew. His father is a pastoralist herder and his mother sells camel milk. Bemused by the attention on his arrival in America, he sobbed when the actual impact of spending most of his life in prison hit home. Not really the profile of a lifer.

There are over 860 pirates currently being held or on trial for their crimes around the world. A new prison has opened up in Somalia (in the semi-autonomous Somaliland, which has taken the UN's dollar and then refused to accept pirates from outwith its own region) and an earnest attempt to shape and enforce laws that deal with the effects of piracy is ongoing.

Ransoms, financiers remain out of the spotlight

However, there is little attempt to make the payment of ransoms illegal, nor is there much publicity about the real beneficiaries of piracy: the financiers. Piracy is not a singular activity. It requires intelligence networks, maritime and land crews, support networks, financing and negotiation. There has yet to be an act of piracy that is not directly linked to the pirates' expectations of large financial payments from insurance companies or ship owners.

Harsh prison sentences have done little to reduce the ardor of pirates and just like steaming large warships in the vast Indian Ocean, they continue to deplete taxpayers money with little demonstrable benefit. It will cost about $210 a day (based on New York State prison costs) to keep Muse in jail. If he completes his full sentence, that will be over $2.5 million dollars at today's costs - not including his trial. Multiply that by the number of pirates on trial and soon to be on trial, and you have a stunningly disproportionate cost when looking at the fixing the root causes of piracy versus prosecuting the after-effects of this singular regional phenomenon.

That is not to say that the sea-going and corporate victims of piracy should not expect swift interdiction and harsh punishment by their governments. It means that we should view the cost and success of every action and in the correct light. For example, the recent sight of the world's most powerful nuclear aircraft carrier and other warships being used against pirates in botched hostage negotiations and the ultimate murder of four Americans on the hijacked SV Quest should give pause to those who assume that swatting one fly with a hammer will prevent other flies from buzzing around the honeypot.

The prevention of piracy lies in a harsh response on the ocean and a realization that much more impact can be achieved with intelligent, cost-effective solutions aimed at the source of the problem. The goal should be to ensure that no Somali sets sail with the intention of armed piracy.