The enactment of the antipiracy law in June 2009 was a statement by Japan that it was ready to step up to the plate and take part in the global effort against piracy off Somalia.
But pundits say the imminent arrival of four pirates — expected to take place as early as Sunday — will lay bare the difficulty of applying the rules.
“Those pirates will be brought to Japan because of the stipulations of the law, but it remains to be seen whether the trouble will be worth it,” Okinawa University professor Tetsuo Maeda, an expert on military matters, told The Japan Times.
The fact that the four were handed over by the U.S. Navy means they are likely to be petty crooks rather than organized terrorists, Maeda continued. The 24 crew members aboard the oil tanker the four attempted to hijack were not harmed, and the vessel suffered no damage.
“There is a possibility that the court will hand down a suspended prison term, in which case the pirates will be deported after the sentence is handed down despite having been flown all the way here,” Maeda said.
The pirates were captured March 5 by the U.S. Navy while trying to seize the oil tanker Guanabara off the coast of Oman.
All 24 crew members aboard the 57,4620-ton vessel, which is registered in the Bahamas and operated by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd., were non-Japanese.
The process for how the government would handle the case appeared somewhat precarious from the get-go, since the legal system, including the antipiracy law, doesn’t have a specific provision on handling pirates captured overseas by a foreign force.
Up until the enactment of the law, Japan couldn’t even bring a suspect to trial unless the attacked ship was registered in Japan or a Japanese national suffered physical harm.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano repeated that “the process (of bringing the four pirates to Japan) is moving forward smoothly” during news conferences earlier this week. But it took almost a week after the attack for a Japan Coast Guard airplane to leave Tokyo to pick the four up.
Okinawa University’s Maeda explained the process of bringing the pirates to trial has already reached “uncharted territory” for the government, and there may be more bumps ahead.
One major concern is how the trial will go, even if the four pirates are handed over smoothly by the U.S. Navy to the Maritime Self-Defense Force and then to the coast guard as planned.
The coast guard is expected to handle the initial arrest and questioning, and the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office will be in charge of the indictment. But from there on the process will call for a lot of playing it by ear.
Under the antipiracy law the four can receive a maximum of life in prison if prosecutors find enough evidence to prove assault, a takeover of the ship and proof that they were seeking a ransom.
But verifying the details of the attack won’t go easy because the Guanabara is already headed to China without any plans of making a stop in Japan.
And if there is enough evidence suggesting a heinous crime took place, the defendants could face a lay judge trial, where greater emphasis on oral proceedings will be necessary.
Hiromi Nagao, a Kobe College professor who specializes in translation issues in courts, warned that providing a fair trial will be difficult, especially if the multinational crew members are called to testify.
“The court will likely look for interpreters at universities who are fluent in Somali and other minor languages,” said Nagao, who has more than 25 years of experience in courtroom interpretation.
But because there is no formal certification in Japan to become a court interpreter, their skills vary widely. Translating complicated legal terms will be a job in itself, but appointed translators should also take the time to prepare for the trial, including being allowed to take part in the pretrial process so they have sufficient background in the case.
Meanwhile, gathering necessary information from the defendants will likely be difficult, as it has proved to be in similar cases overseas.
A Japan Coast Guard aircraft left for Djibouti early Friday to bring to Japan four pirates captured by the U.S. military after they attacked a tanker operated by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. off Oman in the Indian Ocean, officials said.
The U.S. Navy was expected to hand over the pirates to the Japanese side later in the day. The coast guard would then fly them from Djibouti to Haneda airport in Tokyo, the officials said. Their arrival here will probably be Sunday.
The pirates are suspected of violating the antipiracy law of Japan, the flag country of the pirated tanker.