Spain moves to win hostage sailors' freedom

AP News
Posted: Nov 16, 2009 10:03 AM

Spain moved Monday to win the release of 36 fishermen held hostage on a Spanish trawler off Somalia by indicting two captured pirates in a fast-track procedure so they can be returned to Somalia as demanded by the hijackers.

The hijackers who have been holding the tuna boat Alakrana for six weeks are demanding a ransom and the release of the two colleagues in custody in Madrid as a condition for freeing the vessel and the sailors. They were captured Oct. 2 in open waters of the Indian Ocean.

Judge Santiago Pedraz of the National Court indicted the two on Monday in response to an urgent request Saturday from prosecutors that he decide quickly whether to file charges, so as to speed up the case.

The idea is to resolve the status of the two in custody so the government can either expel them under immigration laws if they are convicted, or possibly have them serve their sentence in Somalia, and thus appease the pirates holding the ship.

Now that formal charges have been filed, a trial could begin in two to three weeks, the newspaper El Pais reported. The court said it could not confirm this.

The two men in custody _ identified in the indictment as Cabdeweli Cabdullahi and Raageggesey Hassan Haji _ were captured a day after the hijacking by Spanish naval forces as the men left the trawler in a skiff and headed ashore to Somalia.

The charges against them are kidnapping, armed robbery and use of weapons. The men originally faced preliminary charges of criminal association, as well.

In the end, however, Pedraz has dropped that charge, and this might speed things up. Under Spanish immigration law, a foreigner who is charged with or convicted of a crime that carries a sentence of less than six years can be expelled from Spain. But the crime of criminal association is excluded from that clause.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government has been fending off fierce criticism that it erred in bringing to Madrid the two pirates caught the day after the hijacking.

Relatives of the sailors still held hostage on the Alakrana have said the government should have known this would delay the crisis by causing the pirates still in control of the ship to demand their release.

The government insists it had no choice but to arrest two people who had apparently just committed a crime against Spanish citizens and property. Sixteen of the crew members are Spanish and the vessels is registered in Spain.