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Somali pirates could face death penalty

Four of the five Somali pirates taken alive on a South Korean carrier await their verdict Friday, possibly facing the death penalty or life imprisonment, after a week-long trial in Busan.

The Busan District Court is expected to announce the verdict late Friday afternoon, after reviewing photos, interrogation material and witness examinations as evidence, officials said.

Although charges of maritime robbery, attempted murder and six other offenses may be applied to some of the pirates taken from the Korean ship during a daring commando raid, four charges are expected to be a point of issue for the jury, which could delay the announcement of the verdict, said officials.

The primary issues are whether or not Arai Mahomed, 23, is guilty of shooting Captain Seok Hae-kyun at point-blank range, and whether or not the sailors were taken up to the bridge to be used as human shields during the raid.

Should the charges stick, it could mean life imprisonment for some of the pirates, and the death penalty for Arai Mahomed.

“The pirates took us out from the cabin and used us as human shields,” said chief officer Kim Doo-chan during a testimony.

Prosecutors presented photos of pirates dragging the crew up to the deck.

Kim said he saw Arai looking for Seok and heard four or five rounds being fired right after.

“I was unable to see Arai shooting the skipper but I am certain it was Arai who did so,” he said.

However the defendant’s lawyer denied the attempted murder charges, saying that nobody had witnessed Arai shooting the captain, that only one AK round was found in Seok’s body and that there was only one AK shell in the surrounding area.

The defending lawyers also said that the pirates brought the sailors up to the deck to “show that the sailors are safe, so the commandos wouldn’t shoot,” claiming the defendants never considered using the sailors as human shields.

Pleading guilty to all charges, the fifth pirate, Abdulahi Husseen Maxamuud, will receive his sentence on June 1.

All 21 crew members were successfully rescued, but Seok was shot several times during the raid and remains in a stable condition after numerous operations.

Seok was largely hailed as a hero for stalling the ship so that the Cheonghae Unit, highly praised for its role in the rescue, could carry out the operation.

The five are the sole surviving hijackers of the 11,500-ton chemical carrier Samho Jewelry, after South Korean naval commandos stormed the ship on Jan. 21, killing eight pirates.

According to investigators, some pirates were also involved in the hijacking of another freighter, the Samho Dream, and its two dozen crew members. The 319,360-ton supertanker was released in November after seven months of captivity and after reportedly receiving a ransom of more than $9 million.

Late last month, a Singaporean chemical tanker with a crew of 25, including four South Koreans, was captured in the Indian Ocean.

South Korean container vessel Hanjin Tianjin, carrying 20 people, was kidnapped by pirates off the Somali coast less than two weeks ago, although the crew remained unharmed inside the ship’s citadel while hijackers gave up and ran off.

Somali hijackers have been emboldened by the absence of a functioning central government in their country, leaving them with no fear of punishment.

Armed pirates riding speedboats are active around the Gulf of Aden, where they seize vessels for anywhere from days to weeks before freeing them for a large sum of money.

Governments around the world have striven to avoid negotiating with pirates so as not to encourage further hijackings.

Somalia, with a coastline facing one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, has been in a state of civil war for two decades and has not had a functioning central administration since 1991.

A U.S.-led military intervention aimed at restoring order in Somalia began in December 1992. However, the effort failed and international forces pulled out in 1995 due to the growing danger to troops.

By Robert Lee (robert@heraldcorp.com)
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