If you go by the numbers, the shipping industry is making headway in the fight against Somali pirates: There have been fewer vessels seized this year compared with 2010, and fewer hostages are being held for ransom. But the practice of mistreating mariners while they are in captivity does not show any signs of abating, industry observers say.
A Coast Guard boarding team, responding to a merchant vessel distress signal, detains suspected pirates in the Gulf of Aden in May 2009. An estimated 62 mariners have died in the past four years at the hands of pirates in the region, with more than 3,500 hostages taken. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
According to the maritime watchdog group Save Our Seafarers (SOS), 62 mariners have died in the past four years at the hands of pirates in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, with more than 3,500 hostages taken. While SOS does not have statistics on the number of injuries suffered, it routinely logs reports of intimidation and physical abuse.
"Hundreds of these seafarers have been subjected to horrific torture, including being hung by the ankles over the side of the ship, being shut in the ship's freezer room, having cables tightened around their genitals, being beaten, punched and kicked," said Giles Heimann, SOS chairman. "Many of these seafarers remain traumatized and unable to return to their seafaring careers long after the hijack is over, if at all."
Captive mariners have also been used as human shields and forced to operate their own vessels as "mother ships" under the control of pirates, Heimann said. Mother ships often serve as floating bases and rendezvous points for pirates attacking commercial vessels.
Defensive measures being taken by maritime operators, along with the increased presence of naval forces in the area, have reduced the number of ships seized. While the number of attacks in the first six months of 2011 climbed to 163 compared with 100 a year earlier, the number of hijackings declined from 27 to 21. Somali pirates were holding 398 hostages as of July 20, down from more than 450 earlier in the year, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).
Cyrus Mody, manager of the IMB, said vessels that employ "hardening" techniques, armed guards and best management practices to deter pirates typically do not get hijacked. Hardening techniques include the installation of razor wire, searchlights, alarms and closed-circuit television cameras to monitor attempts by pirates to climb aboard.
"I'm not saying attacks do not take place against (hardened ships)," Mody said. "They do, but because they are stronger targets, the pirates kind of move away from them and seek easier targets. They engage the vessels and they get repelled, or they engage them and realize the hardening within them is more than they can overcome."
For ships that are hijacked, those aboard are at the mercy of the pirates as they negotiate with the owners for ransom. Captured mariners are typically held aboard their own ship, which is moved to what the pirates consider a safe anchorage. In addition to torture and murder, hostages have died from malnutrition, disease, drowning, heart failure and suicide, according to SOS.
Bill Box, treasurer for the group, said the duration of many ransom negotiations has been reduced as the pirates become more desperate because of the decrease in successful attacks.
"Believe it or not, the pirates are having cash-flow problems," Box said. "It's quite difficult doing what they're doing. If they suddenly have a load of ships that have been seized, they need money to staff the ships. They're speeding (ransom) talks to get rid of some ships quicker. If a ship is seized and is anchored off Somalia, for instance, you need teams of guards on board, often for five or six months, teams of 10 to 15 people. People need to be fed. Food and fuel cost money."
Most injuries and deaths occur after pirates have taken control of a ship and do not appear to be related to the length of time a vessel is held, Box said.
"I don't think the success rate in making attacks has affected the way they treat people," he said. "I think it's more a case of frustration at not getting the ransom figure they want. After three or four months and things are still dragging out, there might be an element of frustration. But with these guys, it's not really more likely to happen at any given time. They are chewing khat and can be quite unpredictable."
Box said it has been difficult to gather detailed information on the extent of mistreatment suffered by hostages and when deaths have occurred. SOS knows that hundreds of mariners have been abused, but many others do not report the mistreatment when they are released.
"We don't know how widespread it is," he said. "You only know these things have happened when the people it has happened to tell us. We understand that it's happening on more than a few ships, but we can't really be any more precise than that."
While naval forces from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and individual countries have stepped up patrols in the area in an effort to deter piracy, SOS says more needs to be done.
The group has called on governments to commit more military ships and to be more aggressive in apprehending pirates for punishment. It is also pushing authorities to trace and prosecute the organizers and financiers behind the pirates.
"The European navies and NATO navies are working together and disrupting a lot of armed action groups in the area," said Mody, the IMB manager. "The independent navies like India, Malaysia and South Korea, especially the Indians, have been very robust against the pirate vessels. Their presence has to be sustained and definitely increased if possible, because what is required is a much greater force along the east coast of Somalia to actually prevent the pirates from going out."