Modern German justice had never handled a case of piracy until June 11, when 10 Somali seafarers, including children, were presented at a tribunal in the city port of Hamburg, some 300 km west from Berlin, on charges of robbing cargo in the Indian Ocean.
The accused are the first Somali people to be prosecuted in Germany as part of Operation Atalanta, the European Union’s military surveillance of the Indian Ocean officially established “to help deter, prevent and repress acts of piracy and armed robbery off the coast of Somalia”.
According to the Hamburg prosecutor’s office, the Somali seafarers on April 5 attacked the German container ship Taipan.
The cargo was liberated the same day by Dutch soldiers serving in Operation Atalanta.
The EU claims that the operation’s objectives are “the protection of vessels of the World Food Programme delivering food aid to displaced persons in Somalia, of vulnerable vessels cruising off the Somali coast, and the deterrence, prevention and repression of acts of piracy and armed robbery off the Somali coast”.
To that effect, since Dec 2008 EU war ships and planes and several hundred soldiers patrol the Indian Ocean to chase what the EU calls “Somali pirates”.
However, critics of the operation suggest that its hidden mission is to protect European vessels accused by Somali seafarers and international organisations of another form of piracy: illegal fishing and the dumping of toxic waste, including radioactive material, in Somali waters.
One example of the EU’s protection of vessels fishing illegally in the waters of the Horn of Africa is the Spanish tuna fishing boat Alakrana.
In Oct 2009, Somali pirates seized the boat, arguing that it was fishing illegally in Somali waters.
Almost two months later, the Somali pirates released the boat for a ransom of some four million dollars after several attempts by the Spanish army to free the Alakrana had failed.
The Somali allegations that the Alakrana was illegally fishing in the Indian Ocean were never investigated.
For Jack Thurston, a London-based activist monitoring EU subsidies for European companies, “it is almost certain that the Alakrana was fishing for species that are on the endangered list or not far from it”.
Thurston, founder and managing director of Fishsubsidy.org, a watchdog group that researches the EU’s subsidies for fisheries, told IPS that “the construction of Alakrana was part-funded by EU taxpayers to the tune of more than 4.2 million euro”.
Allegations that EU companies have been fishing illegally and dumping toxic waste in Somali waters have been frequent since a tsunami in Dec 2004 washed ashore containers full with medical, radioactive and chemical waste on the coast of Somalia.
This casual discovery was later confirmed by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
“Initial reports indicate that the tsunami waves broke open containers full of toxic waste and scattered the contents. We are talking about everything from medical waste to chemical waste products,” Nick Nuttal, UNEP spokesperson, said at the time.
“We know this material is on the land and is now being blown around and possibly carried to villages.”
Evidence gathered by the European Green party and environmental organisations show that Swiss and Italian companies have dumped toxic waste in the Indian Ocean.
The UN Special Representative for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, has also repeatedly raised the issue of illegal fishing and the dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters.
During a UN conference in July 2008, he told the press, “because there is no (effective) government (in Somalia), there is so much irregular fishing from European and Asian countries”.
Ould-Abdallah also denounced illegal fishing in the Somali waters before EU authorities.
During a 2009 meeting with the high command of the EU’s Atalanta mission in Mombassa, Kenya, Ould-Abdallah said that “there is no doubt that there is illegal fishing by Asia and Europe”.
There is no doubt indeed. European boats have been caught fishing illegally practically all over the world, as prosecutions in Canada, Norway, the US and elsewhere show.
In addition, given the depletion of fish in European waters, European vessels are forced to go fishing further away — in West African waters, from the Canary Islands in the North to Angolan waters in the south, or in the Indian Ocean.
The waters off Somalia’s shore are still rich with several tuna varieties —all highly priced in international markets.
A 2005 report from the marine resources assessment group (MRAG) estimated that the Somali economy loses some 90 million dollars a year due to illegal fishing.
Estimates by the UNEP put the figure as high as 300 million dollars a year.
Such figures led the German retired admiral Lutz Feldt to urge the EU authorities to extend the Operation Atalanta mandate to the fight of illegal fishing.
“For many, illegal fishing is a quick way to make money but for most people in Somalia it represents a heavy loss,” Feldt told the German news television programme Fakt.
Feldt recalled that, “according to international law illegal fishing is a crime and it should be treated as such”.
Even European fishing companies admit that they are exploiting the Indian Ocean waters and involved in illegal fishing.
During a hearing on Operation Atalanta at the European Parliament in April 2009, representatives from French and Spanish ship-owner organisations told deputies that there were about 40 EU fishing boats operating in the Indian Ocean to catch three or four species of tuna fish.
So far, no illegal fishing in the Indian Ocean has been reported as part of Operation Atalanta, let alone European ships being caught doing it.
“The French and Spanish boats fishing in the Indian Ocean operate in international waters,” a spokesperson of the mission told IPS. “If they were fishing illegally in the area, it would be up to the national authorities of their countries of origin to see that they stop doing it.”