6 Somali Pirates on Trial in Paris
6 Somali Pirates on Trial in Paris

France has opened its first Somali piracy trial with six men appearing before a Paris court.  The trial comes amid growing international efforts, both on- and off-shore, to crack down on Somali piracy.

The six men are accused of taking a French couple hostage on their boat off the coast of Somalia in 2008.  Two weeks later, French special forces freed the couple and seized the men.  Today the six Somalis, who range from 21 to 35 years of age, say they were fishermen who were forced into piracy.

Paris-based maritime lawyer Xavier McDonald says that on jurisdictional grounds, the French case is fairly clear.

"The alleged pirates were apprehended on board a yacht, which flies the French flag and is therefore considered to be part of French territory," he said. "So they were effectively apprehended on French territory."

A lawyer for one of the Somali defendants in Paris, Rachel Lindon, believes the French justice system should take Somalia's chaos and poverty into account.

Lindon told French radio that within this context, her young client had little choice other than to become a pirate.

The trial, which is expected to last several weeks, is a first in France.  But as piracy has exploded off the Horn of Africa, a growing number of countries have launched similar proceedings.  Kenya took the lion's share of the Somali cases, until it complained its overburdened justice system couldn't handle more.

McDonald says France and other Western nations holding trials face problems of their own.

"There is absolutely this issue that once we have the pirates in our home jails, what do we then do?  How do we repatriate them after their jail terms?  Will they be able to seek asylum, will they be able to invite their families to join them?" asked McDonald. "There are all sorts of issues."

Others argue the international community should attack the problem at sea.  

"We're not criticizing the naval forces that are out there - they're doing their best," said Bill Box, secretary for Save Our Seafarers, a British-based anti-piracy campaign.  "The problem is in the follow-up.  The problem is when they catch pirates, some of the time, these guys are being released."

But McDonald says there are no easy solutions.

"Everyone agrees on the issue being, 'How do we eradicate the problem?'  And there is a consensus that the problem can only be eradicated on land and that dealing with the problem at sea is simply a partial response," he said.

The debate is likely to continue. France is expected to hold another Somali piracy trial next May.