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Somali not pirate, just needed help: lawyers

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

A Somali man accused of attempting to hijack a Bahamian-registered oil tanker off Oman in March 2011 — the final of the four men brought to Japan to be tried under the 2009 antipiracy law — pleaded not guilty Tuesday before the Tokyo District Court.

Just as in the previous trials of the other three men, the 21-year-old’s case is being heard by three professional and six lay judges. The three other Somalis admitted to involvement in the attempted hijacking and were convicted by the lower court. Two so far have appealed.

This time, however, the defendant, whose name has been withheld because he was a minor at the time of the alleged crime, is challenging prosecutors’ allegations. A ruling is set to be handed down April 12.

“I did not commit any act of piracy,” the Somali told the court. “I would like to ask the lay judges to listen carefully and weigh the evidence.”

Prosecutors said the defendant and the three other men boarded the 57,462-ton Guanabara, operated by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd., on March 5, 2011, with the intention of taking the 24-member crew hostage for ransom. Although none of the crew was injured, the men fired their rifles a number of times while on board, prosecutors said.

“The four including the defendant at first explained that they were seeking help while adrift, making sure beforehand that their stories didn’t contradict one another,” prosecutors said. “We will prove that the defendant was an accomplice to the other three in the act of piracy.”

Arguing for the defendant’s innocence, his lawyers said the men were hired to guard a ship traveling to Oman and that they sought help from the Guanabara when they experienced engine trouble on their return to Somalia. The lawyers added that the men fired several rounds into the air to get the crew’s attention.

They also moved for dismissal on grounds the men cannot receive a fair trial in Japan. For one thing, they noted, because no one can interpret directly between Japanese and Somali, proceedings are carried out with two interpreters: one for Japanese and English and the other for English and Somali.

The defendant “is not a pirate, he is innocent. . . . Rulings are handed down based on common sense, but how well do we really understand Somalia?” one of the lawyers asked. “He was brought to Japan, a country that has a different language, culture and laws, because (authorities) thought he was a pirate.”

Lawyers for the defendant said he was from a poor family in Somalia, where he was a nomad and also worked as a fisherman. Left behind in his home country are his mother, an older brother and a younger brother and sister. His father died when he was 5, and four other siblings were lost to illnesses, defense lawyers told the court.

“Acts of piracy to gain ransom money has become a sort of business in Somalia and the current situation is that the young people are being used as a part of it,” the defense lawyers said in a statement. “Poverty is a serious issue in Somalia, where many cannot receive proper education and weapons are easy to come by.”