The trial of seven Somali pirates charged with their involvement in a 2011 hijacking in the Gulf of Aden that resulted in the death of French sailor and the abduction of his wife opened in France on Tuesday. All seven face life in prison.
Christian and Évelyne Colombo had intended to sail around the world in their catamaran, the Tribal Kat. But nine men armed with Kalashnikovs and a rocket launcher attacked them on September 8, 2011 as they sailed through the sea that separates Yemen and Somalia.
The gulf, a necessary waterway for those wishing to reach the Indian Ocean from the Mediterranean Sea, was a known hotbed of piracy at the time, though attacks had dwindled following the success of the international anti-piracy operation "Atalanta," launched in 2008.
Christian, who had retired after serving as a nurse in the French navy, and Évelyne were aware of the danger. Évelyne initially refused to accompany her husband into the notorious waters. The couple had intended to cross the gulf as part of a convoy with three other ships, but was forced to remain docked in Aden for three weeks following a failure of the Tribal Kat's autopilot.
The next stop on their sailing adventure was to be Thailand. The two retirees had been navigating for five days when the attackers approached their ship in a wooden blue skiff and started firing on the couple's boat.
At 1:17pm, Évelyne sent out a distress call.
The pirates caught up with the catamaran and boarded the ship, which they searched and looted. When Évelyne emerged from below, she saw her husband's body lying in a pool of blood. The pirates threw Christian's body overboard, leaving only his bloodied glasses on the deck.
The pirates then kidnapped Évelyne, ordering her to fetch warm clothing and a mattress from a deck chair on the catamaran. They placed her at the front of the skiff, hidden from view under a white tarpaulin. As the sun began to set, they sped off towards the coast of Somalia.
A few hours after the attack, a German ship from the Atalanta mission found the abandoned, bullet-ridden catamaran, intensifying the hunt for the two missing sailors.
Two days later, a Spanish helicopter deployed as part of the mission spotted the skiff off the Somali coast. Évelyne, who had just spent the last 48 hours lying under a tarp beaten by waves, was soaked to the bone and had eaten nothing more than a tin of tuna since the start of her ordeal.
A Spanish ship was sent to intercept the skiff, but the pirates started to fire on the boat and threatened to kill their hostage. After exchanging gunfire, the Spanish troops launched a raid and killed two of the pirates. As the skiff started to sink, the troops arrested the seven remaining pirates and rescue Évelyne, who was transported by helicopter to a French ship.
The seven pirates were flown to France from Oman on board a military jet in September 2011 — less than a year after France passed a law regulating the arrest of pirates, following a string of attacks in the Gulf of Aden. The law made it easier for foreign pirates who have attacked French nationals to be tried in French court.
In 2008 and 2009, pirates attacked the Ponant, the Carré d'As, and the Tanit. The attack against the Tribal Kat is the only one that resulted in the killing of a French national. (A French skipper who died on the Tanit during the rescue mission was killed by friendly fire.)
The seven pirates who were charged in connection to the deadly hijacking have spent the last five years incarcerated in France, and are now between 25 and 32 years old.
Several of the defendants have argued that they did not know what they had signed up for when they took to sea that day. Some of the men have said they thought they were taking part in a shark hunt. Others claim they were told they would be transporting migrants.
The defendants have claimed that the two pirates who were killed in the raid on their skiff had led the operation. They said a pirate known as "Shine" was responsible for organizing the attack, and said a pirate known as "Abdullahi Yare" was Shine's deputy.
Prosecutors allege that the entire pirate crew was intent on kidnapping people at sea for ransom.
The court in Paris will have until April 15 to decide whether the men are guilty of "hijacking a ship, resulting in death." If found guilty, they could be sentenced to life imprisonment.
The proceedings will seek to determine who was responsible for the killing of Christian Colombo. During questioning, the suspects blamed the attack on the two pirates killed during the rescue. Investigators have suggested that Yare was the likely killer, but they found traces of gunpowder on several of the pirates following the raid.
Speaking to French daily Libération, attorney Élise Arfi, who represents the youngest of the pirates, said it was important for the court to consider the circumstances surrounding the attack.
"You have to look at what pushes Somali nationals to either flee their country or attack ships. When you don't eat, you can't turn down the prospect of 100 dollars," she said, referring to the fee the pirates had been promised.
The trial has been presented by the media as "the last trial" of Somali pirates in France, since the apparent eradication of piracy in the Gulf of Aden following the success of Atalanta.
In 2011, authorities recorded 176 attacks against ships in the Gulf of Aden. No attacks were recorded in 2015. Other reports, however, highlight that the factors that contributed to the rise of piracy have not disappeared, and could lead to a new wave of attacks in the region.
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This article originally appeared in VICE News' French edition.