In an unprecedented move to combat piracy, the Japanese government has decided to have four U.S. Navy-held suspected pirates handed over, it has been learned. The suspects were being held over a thwarted attack on a Japanese oil tanker in the Indian Ocean on Saturday.

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TOKYO — In an unprecedented move to combat piracy, the Japanese government has decided to have four U.S. Navy-held suspected pirates handed over, it has been learned. The suspects were being held over a thwarted attack on a Japanese oil tanker in the Indian Ocean on Saturday.

In response to the decision, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office said it will dispatch a seven-member group, including one or more prosecutors and interpreters, to Oman, where the alleged pirates are under detention.

According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, the tanker is the 57,462-ton Guanabara, registered in Bahamas and operated by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd.

The pirates boarded the Guanabara on Saturday, 328 nautical miles southeast of the southern coast of Oman, but were overpowered Sunday by a special unit from the destroyer USS Bulkeley that boarded the tanker, the ministry said.

The U.S. destroyer, along with a Turkish warship, rushed to the scene in response to a distress beacon the tanker’s crew had sent to an international flotilla of warships in waters nearby, according to the ministry.

The Mitsui O.S.K tanker was not damaged and none of its 24 non-Japanese crew members was injured.

The government’s decision to bring the four pirate suspects to this country came in response to requests from the United States, government officials said.

A Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer carrying the seven-member team is scheduled to bring the four onboard at an Omani port before transporting them to Djibouti, from where a Japan Coast Guard airplane will take them to Japan, the officials said.

Under the antipiracy law that took effect in 2009, MSDF vessels have been charged with escorting Japanese and foreign-registered merchant ships to protect them from pirate attacks. It is the first time, however, that an MSDF vessel will have been part of an operation to bring detained piracy suspects to Japan.

The antipiracy law stipulates that those found guilty of acts of piracy are subject to life imprisonment, or prison sentences of five years or more.

Before the law came into effect, the SDF was allowed only to escort Japan-related ships and its use of weapons was limited to legitimate self-defense. Under the new antipiracy law, however, MSDF vessels can escort any ships, be they Japanese or foreign-registered, and can fire at pirate boats if they ignore warning signals.

Regarding acts deemed punishable, the law cites “extreme proximity” of pirate boats to ships and “depriving ships of the freedom of navigation.”

Prosecution officials said these punitive provisions are applicable to the pirate attack on the Mitsui O.S.K tanker.

A senior prosecution official said the arrests of the suspected pirates will be made by JCG officers, while their indictment will be handled by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office.

Some experts, however, commented that criminal procedures could run into trouble because of a lack of evidence. Similar difficulties have been faced by South Korea’s law enforcement authorities in dealing with a gang of five suspected pirates. The men were transferred to South Korea after being captured by South Korean commandos off Somalia in January.

Although the government this time has accepted the U.S. military’s request to take the suspects, some government officials have voiced concerns that the decision may end up setting a “costly precedent,” with Japan being asked to accept transference of a number of suspected pirates in the future.

The latest government response to the piracy issue also has brought to light the fact that Japan’s legal system does not yet have clear-cut provisions on how to deal with pirates captured abroad.

The handover of the pirates, if carried out, will raise such questions as the high cost of arranging such transfers, the officials said.

According to the JCG, the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea stipulates that a country which captures pirates overseas has the right to decide whether to transfer them to that country, to put them on trial for punishment.