HAMBURG, Germany – The country's first piracy trial in hundreds of years got off to a shaky start Monday, with the court struggling to get even the most basic information from 10 Somali men and youth charged with hijacking a German container ship earlier this year.
The 10 Somalis sat at three rows of tables in the Hamburg state court, some in hooded sweat shirts and oversized pants, which stood in sharp contrast to the pristine black robes of their 20 attorneys sitting with them.
Prosecutors have been unable to determine the ages of three of the suspects. As a result, the trial is being held at a youth court for all suspects.
The Somalis were captured aboard the MV Taipan in the Gulf of Aden on April 5 by Dutch marines. They were extradited from the Netherlands to Germany in June.
When the ship was attacked, the crew sent out an emergency call and then locked themselves in the vessel's security room for several hours. The 15 crew members from Germany, Russia, Ukraine and Sri Lanka also managed to stop the ship's engine, making it impossible for the pirates to take the 140-meter-long (460-feet) Taipan to their Somali home port.
A Dutch anti-piracy unit responded the call for help, and after exchanging fire captured the 10 pirates and seized five machine guns, two missile launchers and ammunition. None of the crew members was harmed.
The panel of judges questioning the defendants in person about their ages and places of birth — as none of them have identity document — with little success.
"I was born under the tree," defendant Abdi Yussuf Karsi told the court when asked for his age and place of birth. "In Somalia."
He said he did not know his exact birth date, but, according to what his mother told him, he is now 20 years old.
One of the youngest defendants started crying and shaking when the court tried to determine his age. He told the court he is 13 years old — which would mean that he would have to be released immediately because according to German law persons younger than 14 years cannot be prosecuted.
The spokesman for the prosecution, Wilhelm Moellers, challenged the defendant's claim and said experts had determined his age to be between 15 and 18 years.
No pleas were entered, which is standard in German court proceedings.
The adults face a possible 15 years in prison if convicted, while the younger defendants can be sentenced to up to ten years.
Judge Bernd Steinmetz stressed that it was his priority to resolve the age issue of the youngest defendants and also decide whether the public and media should be excluded from the trial to protect the privacy of the three teenage defendants.
One of the defense lawyers, Philipp Napp, read out a statement on behalf of all twenty defense attorneys asking the court to take into consideration the alleged pirates' different cultural background.
In case the accused are found guilty, Napp said, "it is important to not only look at the political development of Somalia since 1991, but to also investigate how industrial fishing companies from Europe and Asia and the dumping of toxic waste off the coast of Somalia have had an impact on the living conditions of the defendants."
The Horn of Africa nation has not had a functioning government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a former socialist dictator then turned on each other.
While no piracy trials have been held in Germany for hundreds of years, Hamburg has a centuries-old tradition of sentencing pirates.
Between 1390 and 1600, at least 533 pirates were sentenced and executed in the German port city. The last piracy trial is said to have taken place in 1624, according to the Museum of Hamburg History, the news agency DAPD reported.
The trial is scheduled to resume Dec. 2, and a verdict is not expected before next spring.