At last, a court to try Somali pirates
Most navies catch and release Somali pirates. But Kenya's new pirate court, funded by the UN, aims to bring legal clarity to a complex international crime.
In Pictures Somali pirates
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Beyond it, up a short driveway, stands the imposing breeze-block building that is now the focus of international efforts to prosecute Somalia's pirates. It is Shimo la Tewa maximum-security prison, 10 miles north of the coastal city of Mombasa.
Last week, the first hearings were held in a courtroom designed to ease the immense pressure on a country leading the way in bringing pirates to justice.
The court was paid for with money from the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia, and others, channeled through the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). "This, we hope, is going to go a long way to improving the efficiency of the trials, in a secure, modern environment," says Alan Cole, coordinator of a counterpiracy program at the UNODC office in Nairobi.
There had been concerns over busing suspected pirates daily to and from the main courtroom in Mombasa, which does not have a secure dock and which is swamped with nonpiracy cases. There, witnesses, lawyers, and the public milled around, raising further worries about security. With the court now on the grounds of the prison holding the suspects, concerns have been eased, Mr. Cole says.
Kenya is holding the highest number of piracy suspects in the region, with 105 on trial and 18 already convicted, with sentences ranging from seven to 20 years. Other Somali pirate suspects are being tried or held in the US, Germany, Spain, and France. In the Netherlands last month, five Somalis were sentenced to five years each in the first convictions of Horn of Africa pirates in Europe.
Puntland (the breakaway enclave north of Somalia), the Seychelles, and the Maldives hold others. But how Mombasa became the de facto headquarters of modern world piracy trials is unclear and open to legal question, critics say.
As attacks by the seaborne buccaneers soared in 2009, Kenya signed a memorandum of understanding with the US and Britain, and undertook an informal agreement with the EU, to prosecute pirates arrested in the waters off its anarchic neighbor. Before this, the legal framework was opaque, drawing partly on jurisprudence from the Barbary Wars off North Africa 200 years ago.