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  • Writer's pictureShaun Robertson

Do you Know How Are Pirates Prosecuted? Here are the Laws that Countries Must Follow

On the 28th of November 2022, a Nigerian man was acquitted of piracy in Denmark. He was captured in a military operation launched from a Danish frigate where Danish marines killed some other pirates. As the charges had been dropped against his conspirators that survived the gunfight, he was not imprisoned. The prosecution of pirates is something states have difficulties with for reasons relating to the links between international and domestic law. This article will overview the problems with prosecuting pirates and how states are now working to solve these issues.


The rules for prosecuting pirates have been roughly the same since the 17th century

The rules for prosecuting pirates have been roughly the same since the so-called Golden Age of piracy in the 17th century. Back then, states that captured pirates were responsible for their prosecution. Today, the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea states in Article 105 that:


Therefore, UNCLOS does not propose what penalties should be imposed but only denotes that states have the authority to do so after capturing pirates, regardless of location on international waters, flag state of the ship or destination of the vessel. However, the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA) has more guidelines.


States still need to develop laws relating to piracy as they find it easier to prosecute under other offences

These relate to the extradition of pirates, having prosecution in place for the crimes of piracy and armed robbery at sea, in addition to further laws relating to territory, flagship laws and navigation concerning the capture and prosecution of pirates. However, implementing such guidelines can take time and effort.


Regarding prosecuting pirates, states still need to develop laws relating to piracy as they find it easier to prosecute under other offences. The downside to prosecuting for other crimes, such as robbery, is that pirates may not receive the jail time they deserve. In Malaysia, pirates are convicted under the Malaysian penal code, which covers all other offences such as robbery, kidnapping and hostage-taking. For the high-profile case of the Maersk Alabama hijacking, the last surviving pirate, Abduwali Muse, was convicted of hijacking and kidnapping rather than piracy.



countries, such as Kenya and Seychelles, pirates were let go back into the system as they lacked the funding

For poorer countries, such as Kenya and Seychelles, pirates were let go back into the system as they lacked the funding to run trials for piracy or put offenders in prison for long periods. In a worst-case scenario, Russia was accused of leaving captured Somali pirates 300 NM from shore in an inflatable raft with no navigation equipment as they did not know what to do with them. It is presumed that they died. Factors such as economic capacity and lack of domestic legislation covering piracy can dramatically affect a country's ability to bring pirates to justice.


States, particularly ones more at risk of piracy, are now making efforts to enhance legislation to prosecute pirates. For example, India is currently reviewing an anti-maritime piracy law which would see standard operating procedures in deporting pirates to India to stand trial for the crime of piracy itself.




Moreover, West African states are being urged by the International Maritime Organisation and others to enhance their legislation to improve maritime security. Such efforts would see that pirates are not only convicted with a higher success rate but also receive the maximum sentence for their crimes.

To summarise, the prosecution of pirates is a business which varies and relies on each country's method of justice. However, governments are improving their legislation and justice frameworks to bring pirates to justice should they fall into their hands.

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