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Apr 11

German Justice Through the Eyes of a Somali Pirate

A fascinating Spiegel article which raises some very tough questions about criminal justice. Germany arrests 10 Somali pirates who hijacked a cargo ship, ships them off to Hamburg, and holds a trial for them. Some are under 18 and all have no idea what was going on. How can you, when you have never heard of a court?

For the last seven nights, he has had nightmares in which Judge Steinmetz stabs him in the stomach with a knife. Pohlen pats him on the shoulder, half comforting and half in amusement, and tells him that things won’t get that bad.

“I think he’s serious,” says the interpreter, who left Somalia more than 20 years ago. When Pohlen asks the boy what he means, it turns out that Abdiwali believes that the uniformed bailiffs are soldiers and the people in the visitors’ gallery are members of the secret police. He can’t tell the many people in black robes apart. He is convinced that the prosecutor, who has such a low opinion of him, will pronounce the verdict and that he will be tortured. He thinks that, in the end, the man in charge, who sits in the middle at the front of the room and asks so many questions, will be the one to enforce the sentence.

Abdiwali believes that Steinmetz is his executioner.

Dr. Bernd Steinmetz, 52, the presiding judge of the 3rd Criminal Division, is a somewhat short, friendly man with an alert gaze, gray hair and delicate facial features. He comes across as being cultivated, respectable and polite, almost excessively so. He treats everyone the same, whether it’s the public prosecutor, the frigate captain or the defendants, who sit in front of him wearing prison-issue jackets and trousers that are much too big for them.

Steinmetz has meticulously prepared himself for this trial, which is the biggest case of his career. The white bowtie worn by judges suits him. He looks like he could just as well be a violinist in a string quartet or a Latin teacher. Someone would have to come from a very different world indeed to imagine that he could be an executioner.

Pohlen is flabbergasted.

“But you must know by now that there is no death penalty in Germany?”

“I don’t know that.”

“No one can be executed in this country,” Pohlen explains. “Capital punishment was abolished 60 years ago. And torture is forbidden. So is cutting off hands.”

Abdiwali nods, but he doesn’t look very convinced. He was told that pirates are beheaded in Hamburg. “That was St√∂rtebeker,” says Pohlen, referring to a legendary German pirate from the Middle Ages. “But that was 600 years ago. Now we live in a modern democracy based on the rule of law.”

“What is the rule of law? And what is the court?” Abdiwali asks. “Who is responsible? I don’t understand any of this. Can you explain it to me?”

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