Anti Maritime Piracy Bill, 2019 - A fierce deterrent or a toothless tiger?

In the time of rising Maritime piracy in Western Africa, the Anti - Maritime Piracy Bill, 2019 (hereinafter referred to as 'Bill') comes as a blessing for the Indian sailors who make regular journeys to facilitate maritime trade between India and Africa. This Bill comes as an aftermath to the multiple attacks and captures of Indian sailors by the pirates in Gulf of Guinea. Though the number of attacks by Somalian pirates have decreased recently, the piracies in the Gulf of Guinea have sky rocketed, accounting for 82% of the global share. Last month, two Indian Oil tankers were captured by the pirates in Gulf of Guinea and the sailors were captured for ransom. In December itself, around 40 Indian sailors had been captured by these pirates. Shri Mahesh Sachdev discusses the recent incidents of maritime piracy and how these pirates operate in Gulf of Guinea. (see Mahesh Sachdev, ’In West Africa, a new threat to Indian sailors’, The Hindustan Times, 1 January 2020). Considering that India is Africa’s fourth largest trade partner and employs over two lakh Indian sailors to facilitate trade between them, strong measures are required to end maritime piracy. Consequently, the government has introduced the Bill to prevent maritime piracy and prosecute persons guilty of piracy related crimes. This Article discusses the relevant provisions of the Bill and the discrepancies, if any, in this legislation. Jurisdiction - The Bill gives a fairly wide jurisdiction to the courts. It applies to all parts of the sea adjacent to and beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone of India (EEZ). The EEZ is the area of the sea to which India has the exclusive rights to economic activities. Therefore, any act of maritime piracy against an Indian vessel anywhere in the world will be punishable under this Bill. Definition - The Bill employs a fairly wide definition of piracy. According to the Bill, ”piracy" means any illegal act of violence or detention or any act of depredation committed for private ends by the crew or any passenger of private ship or a private aircraft. Such an act must be committed against another ship, aircraft or any person or property on board such ship or aircraft. Any voluntary participation in operation of the ship or aircraft used for piracy with knowledge that it is being used for such an act and inciting or intentionally facilitating such an act will also fall under the ambit of this definition. Interestingly, this Bill not only includes crimes committed on a ship but also on aircrafts. Therefore, hijacking of an Indian aircraft in airspace will also amount to a crime committed under this Bill, in addition to other relevant laws of India including the Indian Penal Code, 1860. This is a peculiar provision which has been introduced in this Bill since in most nations, the Aircraft hijacking is penalised under regular criminal laws. Act of Piracy - The Bill applies to a person committing an act of piracy who is in the custody of the Indian Navy or Coast Guard regardless of his nationality, a citizen of India, a resident foreign national in India or a stateless person. The courts have no jurisdiction over offences committed over foreign ships unless an intervention is requested by the law enforcement authority or government of the country whose flag the ship is entitled to fly or to which the ship belongs, the owner of the ship or any other person aboard the ship. The courts however shall not have any jurisdiction over warships and government ships employed for non commercial purposes. Penalty - If any such person, as mentioned in the preceding paragraph, has been found guilty for an offence of piracy, the punishment prescribed in the Bill is imprisonment for life or if the act of privacy includes an attempt to murder or causes death, death penalty. An attempt to commit, aid, abet, or procure for an act of piracy, or directing others to participate in an act of piracy will be punishable with up to 14 years of imprisonment and a fine. The Bill prescribes that these offences will be considered extraditable i.e. the accused person can be transferred to any other country for prosecution. Presumption of Guilt - Another important addition to the Bill is the inclusion of Section 11 which puts the presumption of guilt on the accused if the accused is in possession of arms, explosives and other equipment which were used or intended for use in committing the offence or if there is evidence of use of force against the ship’s crew or passengers or if there is evidence of the intended use of bombs and arms against the crew, passengers or cargo of a ship. This provision makes it more onerous for the defence to make a case. It adds teeth to the Bill by putting the ball in the prosecution’s court and putting the burden of proof on the defence. However, this provision is goes against the legal principle followed by almost every nation in the world, including India, that gives an accused the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. In conclusion, this Bill comes as a blessing to Indian sailors who regularly travel the waters in western Africa. However, this Bill is more or less a toothless tiger. The Bill provides for punishing the persons guilty of maritime piracy however, capturing such persons is nearly an impossible task without appropriate deployment of Indian Navy vessels there. The Indian peninsula has over 5000 miles of coastline and deployment of naval vessels in Western Africa is too much to ask of it. This calls for alternate solutions to give effect to this Bill. Indian must, in association with other major traders with Africa including China which is the largest trade partner of Africa, devise a program to deploy a task force in the Gulf of Guinea to protect the maritime traffic in the region. Such measures have been taken in the past. Since the World War II, the Permanent Members of UN Security Council came together for the first time to deploy naval vessels around the coast of Somalia. Presently, around 20 nations are working together to end maritime piracy near Somalia. Even India and China have deployed vessels along the coast of Yemen and Somalia which has resulted in reduction in maritime piracy. Without such cooperation between the respective navies of such nations, it is an impossible task to end Maritime piracy, let alone capturing pirates. Therefore, a combined effort of Indian Navy along with other nations is required to give effect to this Bill and end maritime piracy.

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