- Associated Press - Thursday, June 17, 2010

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) — Five Somali men were sentenced to prison Thursday for attacking a Dutch Antilles-flagged cargo ship with automatic weapons and a rocket-propelled grenade, in the first piracy case to come to trial in Europe in modern times.

The five were convicted of assaulting the Samanyulo in the Gulf of Aden in 2009, an attack that was thwarted by helicopter-borne Danish marines. Each of the attackers was sentenced to five years in prison.

“Piracy is a serious crime that must be powerfully resisted,” said presiding Judge Klein Wolterink.

But one of the defendants called the decision unfair.

“Netherlands don’t like Muslim people,” Sayid Ali Garaar, 39, repeated several times in rough English. “This is not legal.”

Other defendants shook their lawyers’ hands and waved at reporters as they were escorted out of the courtroom.

The case is a landmark in the fight against the escalating incidents of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean that prompted navies around the world to join in a task force to protect one of the world’s busiest sea lanes for merchant ships and oil tankers.

But the pirates sometimes succeed in collecting multimillion-dollar ransoms. And the high-seas hijackings have persisted despite an international armada deployed by the United States, the European Union, NATO, Japan, South Korea and China. Maritime experts say the trial is unlikely to deter the piracy, which brings large amounts of money into the impoverished and lawless coastal region of Somalia.

Prosecutors asked for seven-year sentences, but Judge Wolterink said he took into account the difficult conditions in Somalia that led the men to piracy.

Nonetheless, he said, he was swayed by the fact that the pirates “were only out for their own financial gain and didn’t let themselves be troubled about damage or suffering caused to victims.”

It was only by “lucky coincidence that nobody was killed or wounded,” the judge said.

Other Somali piracy suspects are being held in France, Spain, Germany and the United States.

Kenya has convicted 18 pirates since 2007. More than 100 accused await trial there.

Hundreds of pirates have been detained, and several have been brought to Europe since the international armada was mobilized, but the majority have been released at sea because of the cost and difficulty of bringing them to trial.

At their trial last month the men who were sentenced Thursday denied wrongdoing. Most said they had been fishing and had approached the container ship for help when their skiff ran out of fuel and food.

Defense lawyers argued that the Danish sailors who rescued the ship were unable to testify. But the judge cited testimony from the ship’s crew that the pirates had approached in a threatening manner, moving up swiftly from behind the freighter.

In written testimony, crewmen said they used flares to hold off the attackers, who sped their skiff toward the Samanyulo firing automatic weapons and at least one round from a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Danish marines who flew over the pirates’ skiff in a helicopter said after the incident they saw no weapons on board but that the skiff was carrying a ladder with hooks used for boarding ships. The helicopter pilot said there was no doubt it was an act of piracy.

After the Danish helicopter fired warning shots at the skiff, the pirates jumped overboard. All five were picked up by a Danish navy boat. They were later handed to Dutch authorities for trial because the Samanyulo was sailing under a Dutch Antilles flag.