Prosecuting a Pirate Kingpin
The Seychelles Government learnt on Saturday, 12th October 2013, of the arrest in Belgium of the most important Somali figure active in piracy off the coast of Somalia in recent years. Mohammed Abdi Hassan was arrested on arrival in Brussels after he had traveled from Nairobi, Kenya, this according to news reports.
Better known as ”Afweyne” or “LoudMouth”, he is believed to have been largely responsible for the spread of piracy since 2007 from pirate strongholds such as Haradheere and Hobyo on the coast of Somalia. The United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia (UMSMG) described Afweyne as, “one of the most notorious and influential leaders”, in Somalia’s pirate hub, and was notably involved in the 2008 capture of the Saudi-owned Sirius Star oil supertanker, which was released for a ransom of several million dollars. He also reportedly took part in the 2008 capture of the ‘MV Faina’, a Ukrainian transport ship carrying 33 refurbished Soviet-era battle tanks and other armored vehicles, which was released after a 134-day hijack, for a reported three million dollars.
Of the ten international arrest warrants for Somali pirate organizers which have been circulated internationally by INTERPOL, two of those warrants relate to ‘Afweyne’. The Supreme Court of the Republic of Seychelles issued the first warrant on application from the Attorney General’s office early in 2012 on charges related to conspiracy to commit acts of piracy. The Kingdom of Belgium quickly followed suit with charges relating to the hijacking of the Belgian vessel ‘POMPEII’ in 2009.
Seychelles and Belgium had been working together on investigating ‘AFWEYNE’ or Mohammed Abdi Hassan, since immediately after the release of the crew of the Seychelles vessel ‘Indian Ocean Explorer’ in June 2009. The hijacked ‘Indian Ocean Explorer’, captured at the beginning of April with seven Seychellois crew members on board, was held for over two and a half months off Haradheere and was moored close to the ‘POMPEII’ during captivity. The Seychelles Government worked hard to obtain the release of the ‘Explorer’ crew with Captain Roucou and his crew being freed in late June. The pirates however set fire to and sank the ‘Explorer’ in disgust at not being able to ransom her. The ‘POMPEII’ crew was released some weeks later. Belgian and Seychellois investigators began to exchange information immediately relating to their respective investigations. It wouldn’t be long before the work paid off.
Two years to the day that the ‘Indian Ocean Explorer’ was hijacked, six Somalis claiming to be fishermen were detained at sea and transferred to the Seychelles for investigation. The Police and Piracy Intelligence Cell ensured that their fingerprints and photographs were sent them to INTERPOL for analysis. Within 24 hours, INTERPOL had matched the fingerprints of one of the Somalis to prints found on the released ‘Pompeii’. His photo was also identified by the released crew members of the ‘Pompeii’ as being a member of the pirate crew that had hijacked them. The Somali’ Keelo Kute’ immediately became the subject of an extradition request from Belgium and in May 2012 he became the first person to be extradited from the Republic of Seychelles. He was subsequently convicted in the Belgian Courts.
In the second half of 2012, Seychelles and Belgium continued to cooperate and evidence was formally exchanged between the two States, under the auspices of the Attorney General’s office, targeting the most senior pirates in Somalia. By then the ground was shifting under ‘Afweyne’s’ feet.
Improving cooperation by international and regional maritime forces in the Somali Basin was increasingly interdicting pirate attack groups as they left the Somali coast. Merchant vessels and fishing boats were adopting more effective self self-protection measures. Hijackings and profits were down and ‘Afweyne’ decided to cut his losses and go legitimate – he announced in Mogadishu in January 2013 that he was quitting piracy after a highly profitable eight year career. He was then reported to have sought immunity from prosecution and diplomatic status from the new Somali Government in return for using his influence to persuade other pirates to give up piracy. Prompted by the Seychelles Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a number of influential Governments made statements decrying any concessions to senior and the new President of Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said that while he wanted to offer an alternative means of earning a living to young Somalis caught up in piracy, that there would be no amnesty for the kingpins who had sent them to sea.
In January 2013, at the invitation of the Ministry of Home Affairs, a number of leading piracy investigators from the Seychelles, UK, Belgium, the US, Spain, Netherlands, Germany, INTERPOL and EUROPOL met in the new Regional Anti Piracy and Prosecutions Intelligence Centre (RAPPICC) in Seychelles with a view to going after the Kingpins. Afweyne was at the top of the list. Speaking at the formal opening of the RAPPICC by the UK and Seychelles a month later, Minister Joël Morgan in his speech stated: “The notion that any form of immunity from arrest or prosecution may be granted to those criminals who have financed piracy attack groups, organised, armed and equipped them and managed the negotiations for profit of our kidnapped and abused hostages, is utterly abhorrent to the Government of Seychelles.”
The Seychelles authorities have been quick to congratulate the Belgian authorities for being the first to achieve the arrest of one of the kingpins and have indicated their commitment to supporting the prosecution with evidence in our possession. Eight international arrest warrants remain, three of which have been issued by Seychelles for those alleged to have organized the kidnapping and abuse of the crews of the ‘Indian Ocean Explorer’ (2009), the ‘Serenity’ (2009) and the ‘Aride’ (2011).