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Danish Navy Sets Three Suspected Pirates Free

esbern snare
Esbern Snare in the Gulf of Guinea (Anders Fridberg / Danish Armed Forces)

Published Jan 6, 2022 9:25 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Danish frigate Esbern Snare has provided three captured pirates with a free rubber dinghy and an outboard so that they can return to shore, removing the political risk of bringing them to Denmark to stand trial. A fourth, who was injured during arrest and delivered to a hospital in Ghana for treatment, has been brought to Denmark for further medical care (and a trial) because international obligations required it, the government said in a statement.

The four men were captured after a firefight between Danish forces and a group of suspected pirates on Nov. 24. After spotting a suspicious skiff in international waters of the Gulf of Guinea, Esbern Snare launched a helicopter to investigate. The helicopter crew spotted ladders and other pirate equipment in the skiff, so the Snare gave pursuit and launched a boat with a boarding party. The suspected pirate skiff did not stop when ordered, and Danish forces fired warning shots. In response, the skiff's occupants opened fire on the helicopter and the boarding team. The Snare's boarding team returned fire, killing four, injuring one and capturing three unharmed. An additional suspect went over the side during the exchange and is presumed dead.

Esbern Snare brought the four survivors aboard and held them pending arraignment and trial. The injured man had to have his leg amputated, and after three rounds of surgery on board, he was evacuated to a hospital in Ghana for higher care.

The suspects' legal status has been in limbo for more than a month while Danish authorities discuss how (and whether) to bring them to Copenhagen for trial. In particular, Denmark was concerned that it might be legally impossible to deport them to their home country after the criminal proceedings (and any resulting prison sentences) were finished. Having pirates stay in Denmark indefinitely is not desirable for the government, and it could create a dangerous incentive for others to commit similar criminal acts with the aim of getting prosecuted in Denmark. 

On Thursday, Minister of Justice Nick Hækkerup said that he has resolved the matter by having Danish prosecutors drop charges of attempted manslaughter against the three uninjured pirates aboard Esbern Snare. An indictment would have meant that they would have to be brought to Denmark to stand trial - an undesirable outcome. They have "on that basis been released at sea," Denmark's Justice Ministry said in a statement. 

"We have no interest in getting the persons in question to Denmark, where they would have to serve a possible sentence, and where we also risk that they would not subsequently be able to be deported," said Hækkerup. "They have no connection to Denmark, and the crime they have been charged with has been committed far from Denmark. They simply do not belong here. And that's why I think it's the right thing to do."

Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said that it was not possible to hand over the suspects to a nearby coastal government for trial. The same is true for the injured suspect: the Danish government could find no legal way to release the injured man locally, so he will be brought back to Copenhagen to stand trial. 

"Due to our international obligations, it was crucial to get guarantees for the future fate of the suspected pirate, but unfortunately this has not proved possible." said Hækkerup. "This presumably means that he will be prosecuted in Denmark for attempted manslaughter of Danish soldiers."

Though Esbern Snare's anti-piracy mission has not gone quite as planned, Denmark's minister of defense said that it had partly achieved its goals. "There is no doubt that with Esbern Snare's presence in the Gulf of Guinea, we have already sent a very clear signal to the organized criminals behind hostage-taking and other attacks on merchant ships in the area," said Minister of Defense Trine Bramsen.

Royal Danish Navy Deputy Commander Adm. Carsten Fjord-Larsen told DR that the three uninjured suspects were given a small inflatable boat and an outboard motor, then released. "It is safe equipment, understood in the sense that it can transport them safely to the coast," he said. "But it is not stuff that can be used for piracy."

The bodies of the four deceased pirates are still aboard the frigate, and the final disposal of their remains is still under discussion.