On 25 February 2003, in a landmark judgment an Indian court in Mumbai sentenced fourteen pirates of Indonesian origin to rigorous imprisonment terms ranging from six months to seven years. The pirates have been accused of hijacking the Japanese-owned vessel, Alondra Rainbow off the coast of Indonesia in October 1999. The hijacking took place shortly after the ship left Kuala Tanjong, Indonesia, on 22 October 1999, bound for Milke, Japan, with a cargo of aluminum ingots. It was later captured after it gave a ‘determined chase’ to the Indian navy and Coast Guard ships.
The pirates have been charged on eleven counts under the Indian Penal Code that include attempt to murder, forgery, criminal conspiracy, assault and using deadly weapons. The Indian prosecution comes close on the heels of a Chinese court handing out similar punishment to pirates earlier in the month. According to International Maritime Bureau (IMB), the judgments are “a breakthrough” in the fight against sea piracy. The prosecution not only sends a clear warning to sea pirates, but also sets a precedent for other states to tackle sea piracy likewise. That apart, the judgment allays prevalent apprehension among maritime practitioners that “it is easy to apprehend pirates, but difficult to prosecute.”
Meanwhile, the 2002 annual report on piracy at sea published by the International Chamber of Commerce on 31 January 2003, has noted that there were 370 attacks on ships in 2002 registering a ten percent increase over the last year. In a chilling twist, though the number of crew killed declined from 21 to 10, the statistic masked the fact that 24 passengers or crew were listed missing. The waters around Indonesia (103 incidents), Bangladesh (32), the Malacca Straits (16), Malaysia (14), Vietnam (12) and India (14) remained pirate infected. In 2002, the Malacca Straits experienced 16 attacks, down from 75 in 2000, but both Indonesia (from 91 incidents to 103) and Bangladesh (from 26 incidents to 32) experienced an upsurge. According to the report, the decline in the number of incidents in the Malacca Straits was due to enhanced patrolling by maritime forces, particularly the escort duties performed by the Indian navy for the US high value assets transiting the strait.
While the states have enhanced maritime patrolling in the piracy prone waters and courts have begun to prosecute criminals, the maritime community continues to be pessimistic about the ability and intent of states to counter piracy. Reportedly, piracy at sea costs the world’s economy some US$25 billion a year and the threat is growing as modern pirates equip themselves with the latest technology. The IMB has recommended a special anti-boarding system called ‘Secure-Ship’ and a non-lethal collapsible electrical fence around the ship when transiting danger areas.
During a diplomatic conference in London, the International Maritime Organization adopted a new International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code. According to the code (expected to come into effect from 1 July 2004) all cargo ships over 500 grt and all passenger ships in international trade, including high speed light craft, must have a security framework that includes (a) dedicated company security officer (b) Ship-specific security assessment (c) ship security officer (d) Ship-specific security plan, and (e) International Ship Security Certificate (ISSC). This implies that ship owners have to formulate a ship security policy, appoint qualified ship security officers capable of assessing potential risks and formulate requisite countermeasures. These measures will have to be in place before the ships can obtain an internationally recognized security certificate.
These developments point to the fact that there is a move towards privatization of security. According to analysts, in the 1990s there has been a rapid growth of private military security agencies and the private security trade will grow from $55.6 billion in 1990s to $202 billion in 2010. Recognizing the growth potential of this industry, several companies have already made their debut into providing maritime security. For instance, a British company has proposed placing retired Gurkha officers onboard few East Asian shipping companies for reasonable remuneration; the Gurkhas are adept in close unarmed combat being proficient in martial arts and they are already employed in Hong Kong vessels and ferries. Similarly, another company, ‘The Group,’ provides Nepalese trained seafarers for the maritime industry and is claimed to have sent over 400 men to sea on more than 85 ships of over 20 companies.
Pirates are like sharks; they breed and show up in some regions more often than others. Unfortunately, South East Asia, South Asia and the horn of Africa are the hotspots of piracy in the Indian Ocean and account for more than half of the worldwide reported attacks. With the centre of gravity of piracy located in the Indian Ocean, the Indian court’s pioneering judgment will go a long way in the international fight against sea piracy.