In the first case prosecuted under Japan’s 2009 antipiracy law, two Somali men pleaded guilty Tuesday in Tokyo District Court to charges of boarding and attempting to hijack a Bahamas-registered tanker operated by a Japanese shipping company.

The ship, sailing in the Indian Ocean off Oman, came under attack in March 2011.

While acknowledging the attempted piracy, defense lawyers questioned the legitimacy of prosecuting the case in Japan, rather than where the crime was committed. They also argued that neither the vessel’s registry nor any crew on board were Japanese.

Mohamed Urgus Adeysey and Abdinur Hussein Ali, who gave their ages as about 23 and 38, respectively, admitted boarding the oil tanker Guanabara, operated by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd., on March 5, 2011, with the intention of seizing control and taking the 24 members of the crew hostage.

Held under the lay judge system, the case is being heard by six citizens and three professional judges. The proceedings are being translated into Somali with the aid of English and Somali court translators.

A ruling is expected on Feb. 1.

According to the indictment, Adeysey and Ali, along with two other Somali men, approached the 57,462-ton Guanabara in a small boat and threatened the crew, all non-Japanese, with automatic weapons fire. The Guanabara was transporting heavy oil from Ukraine to Singapore through the Gulf of Aden and was in open waters when the four pirates boarded the tanker.

Following antipiracy procedures, the crew members evacuated to a control room, from which they could operate the ship. The hijack attempt ultimately failed, prosecutors said. No crew members were injured and the vessel received only minor damage.

“These Somali pirates are nothing like the pirates you see in children’s books, cartoons or movies. The pirates in this case are armed with automatic rifles from a country called Somalia,” prosecutors said.

They branded the acts of piracy in the Gulf of Aden an international threat to the estimated 18,000 vessels that travel past the coast of Somalia annually. Such acts have increased in recent years, reaching a total of 237 attacks in 2011. The Maritime Self-Defense Force has joined with the navies of many other countries in sending ships to protect these vessels from pirates, they said.

Adeysey and Ali were taken into custody by U.S. forces and handed over to the Japan Coast Guard in accordance with the antipiracy law, which stipulates that guilty parties may be imprisoned from five years to life.

Lawyers for the defendants, who have been in detention for more than a year and 10 months, argued that even if convicted, the two should be given suspended sentences to keep them from being imprisoned in Japan.

“We live in Japan, a peaceful and rich country and (the defendants are) from a completely different world. I would like for the court to take this into consideration when you judge them,” one of the lawyers said.

According to the defense team, both Adeysey and Ali come from poor families and used to work as shepherds and fishermen, making only ¥3,000 to ¥10,000 per month. With Adeysey having two children and Ali having four, they decided to join a group of pirates which they heard made a lot of money.

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