CSI maritime: solving crimes afloat
Thursday, 31 May 2012 | 00:00
As another suspected pirate heads to court on the strength of forensic evidence, crime at sea is getting some serious attention.In the latest example of shipping meets TV's Crime Scene Investigation, a Somali has been extradited from The Seychelles to Belgium to face charges of piracy after his fingerprints matched those found on a ship that had been hijacked three years earlier.Belgian federal police had carried out
their own CSI on the Belgian-flagged Pompei immediately after it had been released with its 10 crew members unharmed and when six Somalis were subsequently arrested in the Indian Ocean country's territorial waters, their fingerprints were taken and checked against the database on maritime piracy maintained by Interpol. Not only were those of one of the hijackers of the Belgian ship matched but also others wanted by India in connection with another incident.
The Seychelles is one of six countries in the region - the others are Kenya, Madagascar, Oman, Maldives and Tanzania - that are taking part in an Interpol-backed project to improve their intelligence-gathering and collection of forensic evidence.
Methods for fighting pirates have evolved from self-defence by merchant ships and intervention by both naval forces and private security with varying degrees of success, but one of the more seemingly intractable issues has been what to do with those captured either in the act or with the perceived intent of committing it. The release of many by naval forces, unsure of their legal powers or unwilling to use them, dismayed the industry, but gradually the process of arrest and prosecution has been clarified and assisted by the greater involvement of national and international law enforcement agencies such as Interpol.
The burden had initially fallen on naval forces that were not trained or equipped to deal with what is essentially a matter for civilian law enforcement agencies. It has only been with the gradual involvement of such agencies that the importance of forensic evidence has been recognised.
The complexity of cases of piracy where incidents take place in international waters and often involve assets and people - owners, managers and the crew (those on the Pompei came from four different countries) - from a variety of countries with differing legal codes still presented a daunting challenge. Backed by the United Nations' Security Council, Interpol has, however, succeeded in persuading its 190 members to co-operate in exchanging information such as forensic evidence.
The Interpol piracy database now holds details of over 800 suspects, a number that should grow following this month's intelligence-sharing agreement with the anti-piracy naval operations of NATO. It complements a similar existing one with the European Union and both aim to bring to justice not just the hijackers but those who organise and finance them as well. Fingerprints of a different kind may be left on the machinery of the criminal networks behind piracy.
The Interpol announcement of the extradition coincided with the news that the legal committee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) had approved plans to draw up guidelines on how serious shipboard incidents involving an alleged crime should be handled, including the collation and preservation of evidence.
No liability, the committee advised, should be attributed to any of the crew if their inexperience resulted in a lack or contamination of evidence. Ultimately, this could lead to Masters and other senior officers having to be trained in CSI techniques; some are already being advised on the preservation of hijack-related forensic evidence.
The development at the IMO came as a result of a joint proposal from the governments of the UK and The Philippines and the Cruise Lines International Association that had been motivated by a number of serious incidents on both cruise ships and cargo ships where a common concern was the perceived failings of a multi-jurisdictional system.
The UK's Shipping Minister, in making the proposal to the IMO, said "Taking a cruise should be a safe and enjoyable experience. However, we have been reminded in recent years that crime exists at sea as it does on land and we should be certain that there are effective mechanisms in place to respond to this."
The emphasis on passengers was, however, criticised by the international officers' union Nautilus which said seafarers deserved the same level of protection.
The most prominent cargo ship incident had involved the death of a South African female cadet on a UK-flag containership. Since the death had occurred in its territorial waters, Croatia had conducted the investigation that concluded with a verdict of suicide, a decision not wholly accepted by the deceased's family and Nautilus that has argued since the incident involved a UK-flag vessel it should have been investigated by either British police or accident investigators.
The extradition - the first of its kind - of a pirate suspect from The Seychelles to Belgium, which only recently enacted a law against piracy, was hailed by Interpol last week. "This case marks a major success in the cross-border fight against maritime piracy and represents a blueprint for international cooperation with Interpol in the fight against maritime piracy and its networks," Pierre St. Hilaire, head of the agency's maritime piracy taskforce, said.
Whether the same degree of co-operation can be achieved when other, perhaps lesser, crimes are committed in the jurisdictional twilight zone that exists at sea remains to be seen.
The crime of piracy will continue to receive the greater attention and commitment of resources as its impact is felt more widely than any isolated serious incident on a cruise ship or cargo ship.
A ship in addition is, as Interpol's legal counsel has noted, a "somewhat unusual crime scene" and often one remote from the resources of the relevant law enforcement agency. The costs of sending officers halfway around the world may also be a deterrent, creating the risk recognised by the IMO Legal Committee that the vital work of evidence-gathering is left to inexperienced crew.
Crime may, indeed, exist at sea as much as it does on land, but without a mobile police force wearing the same uniform is always going to be that much harder to tackle.