Yesterday saw eleven of those Somalis recently apprehended by the U.S. Navy appearing before a magistrate in a Norfolk, Virginia, courtroom. According to ABC News, the suspects were indicted on charges that include piracy, assault with a dangerous weapon, use of a firearm during a crime of violence and attacks to plunder a vessel. The most serious charge - piracy - carries a mandatory life sentence, while the others have penalties ranging from 10 to 35 years. According to media reports, one of the suspects appeared using crutches with bandages on his head, while another arrived in a wheelchair because one of his legs had been amputated below the knee. The injuries are said to have been the result of alleged battles with the Navy.
Though none of the defendants entered a plea during the 90-minute hearing yesterday, it is being reported that a detention hearing will be held next Wednesday and the actual case against the men could be scheduled before the summer.
The indictments come a day after news was released that a flotilla of pirate vessels attacked an Iranian supertanker in the Gulf of Aden as the vessel was sailing to Egypt from the Kharg Island terminal in the Persian Gulf. The report says that 15 boats took part in the attack, which was thwarted when Iranian naval elements arrived on the scene. Reuters says the supertanker was carrying 300,000 barrels crude oil valued at $150 million at the time of the pirate attack.
The aborted attempt to seize the Iranian vessel follows on reports that Somalis holding the MT Samho Dream have threatened to blow that supertanker up unless the pirates receive a hefty ransom. Someone named Hashi - described as a 'pirate commander' - spoke to Reuters from the Somali town of Hobyo, saying, "We are demanding $20 million to release the large South Korea ship." (The tanker is technically a Marshall Islands vessel, being registered there. She is owned by a Singaporean firm and operated by a South Korean one.)
Blowing the Samho Dream up would be an environmental disaster, but the damage inflicted would be most terribly felt along the Somali coastline and would obviously most affect the fishery in that region. Given the likely reaction of ordinary Somalis to such an event, it's unclear whether the pirates would seriously carry through on the threat and risk turning even more of their people against them. On the other hand, we already know that pirates have been willing to intercept vessel carrying much-needed international aid to Somalia and affect the ability to feed and care for the people living there, so every threat needs to be taken seriously.
Finally, on a somewhat lighter note was the buried news of a group of suspected pirates who got lost while trying to return to Somalia after an unsuccessful hunting trip. As the Reuters report printed in The Vancouver Sun says, the group was heading back towards Hobyo from somewhere near the Seychelles when they ran out of water and food. One of the would-be pirates, Abdulkhadir Jim'ale, says that in the course of their nighttime passage home, they somehow ended up "in a shiny city with lights." Turns out the gang had missed Hobyo - by a long shot - and were in Mombasa, Kenya. The suspected pirates tossed their weapons overboard, beached their boat and disappeared into the city. Jim'ale and four of his colleagues are now back in Somalia, while three others were still missing at the time of the report. This gives you an idea of how porous the coastline and borders of East Africa are. It is also noted that Jim'ale was one of 23 suspected pirates released by the Seychelles last September.