U.S. Navy Captures Pirates

The latest U.S. Navy capture of suspected pirates in the Indian Ocean has all the elements of a high-seas adventure story. But the five alleged pirates now in U.S. custody pose a problem. An expert on maritime law says the U.S. and other countries aren't doing enough to prosecute marauders on the seas.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A U.S. Navy frigate captured five suspected pirates today in the Indian Ocean. The story has all the elements of a high-seas adventure tale with a nighttime shootout, a chase and the sinking of a suspected pirate craft. The tale might end with all five suspects hanging from a ship's yard arm, but as NPR's Corey Flintoff reports, the real question of what will happen to the alleged pirates is far more complicated.

COREY FLINTOFF: As Navy Lieutenant Patrick Foughty(ph) tells the story, the USS Nicholas got word that there were suspected pirates in an area west of the Seychelles Islands. The frigate steamed to intercept the suspected vessels and finally spotted them in the early morning darkness.

Lieutenant PATRICK FOUGHTY (U.S. Navy): One of the vessels, which is actually a skiff, started opening fire, or what appeared to be opening fire on the USS Nicholas. Nicholas then returned fire. Shortly after that, they continued a pursuit and the skiff stopped on its own accord.

FLINTOFF: Foughty says a boarding party found ammunition and fuel aboard the skiff, along with three suspected pirates. The suspects were taken aboard the Nicholas and the skiff was sunk. The skiff was far out to sea when this encounter took place, too far to have gotten there on its own. The Nicholas spotted another vessel that was suspected to be the mothership.

Lt. FOUGHTY: They confiscated it and it's still floating and they took the two crew members who were, again, two suspected pirates on board into custody on the USS Nicholas.

FLINTOFF: Lieutenant Foughty says the Navy hasn't determined yet where the suspects will be taken. The U.S. has an agreement with Kenya under which suspected pirates can be tried in Kenyan courts and sentenced to Kenyan prisons. But these suspects are accused of firing at a U.S. Navy vessel and they could face trial in the U.S.

Mr. DOUGLAS BURNETT (Expert, Maritime Law; Partner, Squire, Sanders & Dempsey): There would be no question that the U.S. would have a jurisdiction if it chooses to exercise it.

FLINTOFF: That's Douglas Burnett, an expert in maritime law and a partner at the New York firm Squire, Sanders & Dempsey. Burnett says the U.S. and other nations should prosecute pirates vigorously but up until now, the policy has been haphazard. Burnett says many captured pirates are not prosecuted at all because it's too expensive and time consuming to bring them to justice. He likens it to the catch and release philosophy that's usually reserved for trout.

Mr. BURNETT: And what happens is the countries throw their guns in the water, then make sure they have enough fuel and food and water to get back to Somalia and give them a severe scolding and send them on their way. Well, going back to Somalia, how long does it take to buy another AK47?

FLINTOFF: Right now, only one accused Somali pirate is awaiting trial in the U.S. He's the young survivor of the alleged pirate crew that attacked the cargo ship Maersk Alabama last year and held its captain hostage in a lifeboat. Navy snipers killed three of the pirate suspects and freed the captain.

Burnett grants that it's expensive and complicated to try pirates in Western countries. But he maintains that the growing cost to international commerce is far bigger.

Mr. BURNETT: The catch and release policies are basically doing very little to deter the pirates. So, they're encouraged to go out and continue attacking ships and, you know, there's a huge price that everybody's paying.

FLINTOFF: He says piracy adds to the cost of all goods that are transported by sea in the form of increased insurance, increased distance traveled and the price of maintaining Naval patrols like the USS Nicholas on missions to suppress the pirates.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

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