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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Pirates Brought to the U.S. for Prosecution Might Seek Asylum

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During the first half of 2011, piracy attacks in the Indian Ocean increased by 36%.  But prosecution of captured pirates remains relatively rare.  In fact, four-fifths of captured pirates are released without further ado.  

A recent incident is proving an exception to the rule.  A group of Somali pirates was captured last February after they murdered four American on a sailboat off the coast of East Africa.  The men were transported to Virginia (which apparently has a long history of prosecuting pirates).  Eleven plead guilty and three others will be indicted on various charges later this month.  They could face the death penalty.     

The Virginia example notwithstanding, why are so few pirates being prosecuted?  One reason may be logistics.  It's not easy to transport pirates from the high seas near African to a courtroom in the West (or even to Kenya, where some pirates are tried based on an international agreement).  Another reason might be a fear that the pirates would claim asylum once they reached a Western country.  A recent law review article by Yvonne M. Dutton explores this very question.

In her article, Pirates and Impunity: Is the Threat of Asylum Claims a Reason to Allow Pirates to Escape Justice, Professor Dutton argues that there is little danger of pirates gaining asylum (or Withholding of Removal  or relief under the UN Convention Against Torture).  Any danger of a pirate claiming asylum, she writes, is offset by the need to bring the pirates to justice.

Yaar! I'll be claimin' political asylum.

Professor Dutton writes that most Somali pirates would not qualify for asylum-they do not fear persecution in their country based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.  She also writes that many pirate-asylum seekers would automatically be disqualified from asylum due to their criminal histories.  She believes that pirates would generally not qualify for relief under the Torture Convention because they could not demonstrate a likelihood of torture if they return to their home country.  And, even if a pirate-asylum seeker demonstrates that he faces torture, the U.S. could seek diplomatic assurances that he would not be tortured if returned home.  Also, pirates could possibly be removed to a safe third country.  Finally, Professor Dutton concludes that even if some pirates do seek asylum, that is a reasonable price to pay for assuring that pirates are prosecuted: "Captured pirates should not be able to get away with murder simply because developed nations do not wish to deal with a relatively few additional asylum claims."

While I generally agree with her conclusions, I can't help but think that Professor Dutton is underestimating the creativity of Somali asylum seekers (and their attorneys).  There are plenty of former gang members from Central America who seek-and sometimes obtain-asylum, Withholding of Removal or Torture Convention relief.  In some ways, their cases are not very different from the Somali pirates (though one key difference is that the pirates are being transported to the U.S. for prosecution, while the former gang members usually make their own way here).

I also disagree with Professor Dutton's idea that pirates could be returned to Somalia after receiving diplomatic assurances that they will not be tortured.  To the extent that Somalia has a government, I doubt it can be trusted with any diplomatic assurances. 

Finally, I have real doubts that a third country would be willing to accept the pirates who we cannot return home. 

These points are all pretty minor.  Very few Somali pirates would qualify for asylum or any other relief if they are brought to the U.S. for trial.  And-given the scope of the problem-it seems well worth the risk to end the culture of impunity that allows piracy to flourish off the African coast.

Originally posted on the Asylumist:

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