Yesterday, the Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg (photo above) was involved in an incident in which pirates attacked a Norwegian-flagged tanker, the MV Front Ardenn, in the Gulf of Aden. Faced with pirates in a skiff intent on boarding the tanker, the crew of the Front Ardenn took evasive maneuvers which prevented a boarding, and notified naval forces in the region of the attack. According to AP, a seven hour chase then ensued in which American and Canadian warships and helicopters tried to stop the fleeing speedboat. The Winnipeg, which was escorting a ship carrying food aid through the Gulf, was finally able to apprehend the suspects. Which is where things go wonky.
According to reports, the Canadians were able to do little more than question the would-be pirates and disarm them (though this appears to have consisted of seizing a single RPG round in the skiff, the Somalis having already dumped their weaponry overboard). The pirates were then let free, as Canadian law would not allow the suspects to be prosecuted in this case.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters that, "Those were the appropriate measures under the circumstances," a statement which makes one wonder about just what is the mandate of naval vessels such as the Winnipeg that are on patrol in those waters. At some point prior to the frigate's deployment from Canada, wasn't this very scenario discussed by members of the government, the navy and the office of the military's Judge Advocate General?
This plays into the bigger issue of what will be done to effectively prosecute suspected pirates once nabbed by naval forces. In a number of cases we have seen a reluctance by nations to take the next logical step after capturing suspected maritime criminals by putting them on trial, whether in Kenya or elsewhere. This needs to be addressed, and sooner rather than later. Sending warships to scare off pirates or shoo them away from sea lanes is a weak approach to dealing with the issue. It's like sending police to patrol a crime-ridden neighbourhood but telling them they can't arrest anyone. Even a mall cop may have more power.
If there is anyone in the Canadian judiciary who can comment on this and provide some context about what laws could be applied to pirates, I'd love to hear from you.
On a related note, EagleSpeak provides a lengthy and detailed look (see here) at what may be the last American trial in which piracy was the focus. That was back in 1861 and the jury was unable to agree on a verdict.