The Clipper Project shipping company, whose vessel CEC Future was hijacked by Somali pirates and had to pay USD 1.5 million for its release, has become the first company to file extortion charges against pirates in its home country.
“We have simply decided to file charges with the Danish police for extortion,” says Clipper Project CEO Per Gullestrup.
The CEC Future and its crew were hijacked in November 2008 and released after 71 days after the company’s Danish headquarters had negotiated a USD 1.5 million ransom.
The decision by Clipper Project to file charges against its Somali hijackers may prove to be the international legal breakthrough that has been sought in order to be able to prosecute pirates in the countries targeted during hijackings. Hitherto, international law has made it extremely complicated to find ways of bringing Somali pirates to justice. In several cases, pirates caught during attempted hijackings have simply had to be released ashore in Somalia.
“We have not heard of other shipping companies who have filed charges after having had to pay a ransom,” says Gullestrup, adding that his company has been through extensive legal consultations in order to find a charge that can stand up in court.
The CEC Future case is complicated by the fact that the vessel sails under a Bahaman flag, its sailors are from various nations, the pirates were Somali, the hijack took place in international waters and the vessel’s operator is based in Copenhagen.
Two crime scenes
Clipper Project says that precisely because ransom negotiations took place with company headquarters in Copenhagen, it has found the legal justification to file charges with the Danish police.
“The extortion was in relation to the vessel’s administration in Copenhagen. Financial damage took place here in Denmark and that means that we can run a case here in Denmark,” says Gullestrup.
Legal and piracy expert Birgit Feldtmann of the University of Southern Denmark says the company may have loosened a legal Gordian knot.
“In the event, the pirates were on board and rang from the CEC Future in international waters. But the pirates called Per Gullestrup in Copenhagen, so the crime scene is both where the threat is issued and where it is received,” says Feldtmann.
Danish authorities, however, may not be particularly happy at the prospect of having to investigate and further the case.
“We are somewhat concerned whether the authorities will actually do anything about it. The police force is already under pressure, and this is no easy case,” says Gullestrup.
Clipper Project, however, is able to produce photographs of two of the pirates as well as dna and fingerprints.
The major problem in the case will be catching those responsible for the hijack.
“Somalia doesn’t have a system you can approach to have people deported. So I don’t think it’s realistic to expect us to see these pirates in front of a Danish judge at the moment,” Feldtmann says.
She adds, however, that a benefit in opening a case file in Denmark is that the Somalis concerned can be sought through international channels – something that has not been done previously.
“In order to put out an international warrant, you need a country to have opened a case,” Feldtmann says.
Some 100 Somali pirates picked up by international navies are currently awaiting trial in Kenya and other countries, but these have not had charges filed by shipping companies.
The pirates have been handed over to Kenya as part of international agreements – including with Denmark. Other countries have been reluctant to run court cases.
“As a seafaring nation, Denmark has a clear interest in being able to sail around the world. So Denmark should also shoulder responsibility and prosecute those cases it is able to,” says Feldtmann.
Edited by Julian Isherwood