Arai Mahomed, 23, who is suspected of shooting Captain Seok Hae-kyun at point-blank range, and three others will be publicly tried at the Busan District Court for attemped murder, maritime robbery and other charges, while threes others will be tried for maritime robbery among after charges.
This will be the nation’s first court hearing for piracy, a problem that has plagued South Korean ships in the Indian Ocean. Jury trials, still undergoing an experimental phase, are also rare here.
Prosecutors say they will push hard to charge Mahomed with attempted murder, citing ballistics reports, eyewitness statements and photos.
According to officials, Mahomed denies the charges and his defense council will seek to dismiss the ballistics evidence as inconclusive, while seeking to discredit eyewitness statements.
If found guilty for shooting Seok, Mahomed may face life in prison or the death penalty, while the rest could be sentenced to at least five years in prison, according to legal experts.
All 21 crew members were successfully rescued, but Seok was shot several times during the raid and remains in a stable condition after numerous operations.
Seok is largely hailed as a hero for stalling the ship so that the Cheonghae Unit, also highly praised for its role in the rescue, could carry out the operation.
Lee Guk-jong, chief physician in charge of Seok’s medical team at Ajou University Hospital, is also expected to testify at the trial.
Pleading guilty to all charges, the fifth pirate Abdulahi Husseen Maxamuud will receive his sentence on June 1.
The five are the sole surviving hijackers of the 11,500-ton chemical carrier Samho Jewelry, after South Korean naval commandos stormed the ship on Jan. 21, killing eight pirates and freeing all 21 crew members.
Prosecutors are also expected to pursue charges claiming that the pirates used the hostages as human shields during the naval raid.
The four pirates will receive their verdict on Friday at 5:30 p.m.
According to investigators, some pirates were also involved in the hijacking of another freighter, the Samho Dream, and its two dozen crew members. The 319,360-ton supertanker was released in November after seven months of captivity and after reportedly receiving a ransom of more than $9 million.
Although the hearing is public, security will be on high alert in the event of a terrorist attack or possible retaliation, said officials.
The hearing is likely to draw attention from international media, including the Al-Jazeera network.
Late last month, a Singaporean chemical tanker with a crew of 25, including four South Koreans, was captured in the Indian Ocean and is currently headed towards Somalia.
South Korean container vessel Hanjin Tianjin, carrying 20 people, was kidnapped by pirates off the Somali coast less than two weeks ago, although the crew remained unharmed inside the ship’s citadel while hijackers gave up and ran off.
Somali hijackers have been emboldened by the absence of a functioning central government in their country, leaving them with no fear of punishment.
Armed pirates riding speedboats are active around the Gulf of Aden, where they seize vessels for anywhere from days to weeks before freeing them for a large sum of money.
Governments around the world have striven to avoid negotiating with pirates so as not to encourage further hijackings.
Somalia, with a coastline facing one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, has been in a state of civil war for two decades and has not had a functioning central administration since 1991.
A U.S.-led military intervention aimed at restoring order in Somalia began in December 1992. However, the efforts failed and international forces pulled out in 1995 due to the growing danger to troops.