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By John Helmer in Moscow

Russia has abandoned its anti-piracy policy of fire, capture, arrest, and trial. Instead, the Defence Ministry and Navy have begun issuing orders to the destroyer Admiral Panteleyev, off the Horn of Africa, to put ashore the group of pirates it took on April 28. The Navy also appears to have changed the rules of engagement to emphasize firing to deter, disperse, or kill attackers, not to secure their surrender.

The General Prosecutor, Yury Chaika, has abandoned the stance he took at a meeting on May 4 with President Dmitry Medvedev to put on trial in Russia Somali pirates charged with attacking Russian vessels. Medvedev appears also to have abandoned the position he told Chaika to implement, in favour of an “international practice”. This was reported by Russian wires as a Kremlin proposal for an international court to try pirates.

However, the Rusian officials refuse to answer questions to clarify the policy shift. Instead, Captain Igor Dygalo, the Navy spokesman, requested a fax. There was no reply, and his office claimed to have lost it. The Defence Ministry spokesman told Fairplay: “I would comment if you were a friend of mine”, then insisted on a fax. The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Andrei Nesterenko, requested a fax, but did not reply. Marina Gridnevoi, spokesman for Chaika, did the same.

The only public admission came yesterday, after Fairplay began questioning, when Colonel-General Alexander Kolkmakov, the first deputy minister of defence, announced: “according to our legislation, we will hand them over to a third party.”

In mid-February, the Russian Navy’s missile cruiser, Peter the Great, seized 10 Somali pirates, three boats, arms, and drugs. The pirates were then off-loaded in Yemen. Following the April 28 capture of 29 suspects, the Admiral Panteleyev was engaged for the second time, responding to a pirate attack against the Russian oil tanker, Novoship’s NS Spirit. No prisoners were taken; the pirate speedboat was reported as having been driven off.

Alexander Kovalyov, a profesor of international law at the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, told Fairplay: “The Russian side cannot kill the pirates if they surrender. Neither can the Russian side repel them, and let them go, because nothing will stop them from new pirate attacks. So the Navy has to detain them, and then possibly hand them over to a third party”. He conceded that the costs and complexities are deterring. “The Russian courts are generally too busy to prosecute pirates. Moreover, the whole procedure is very costly, so it’s much easier and cheaper to hand them over to some other country of the region where they were detained”.

According to Kovalyov, the reason Moscow ministry and naval officials, and prosecutors, are reluctant to confirm what they are doing with pirates is that “it is necessary to coordinate such actions with the countries that can accept those pirates for prosecution. It is also necessary to choose the country with the longest term of imprisonment possible. In several countries piracy is not criminalised.”

Medvedev appears to be caught between the use of force, and the difficulty of legalizing it. “What we need,” he told the chief prosecutor, “is not combat operations. We are always able to give a good punch. We need legal qualification of everything that has been happening.”

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