Madagascar captures Somali pirate 'mother ship.' Now what?

The capture of a Somali pirate 'mother ship' north of Madagascar, some 2,500 miles from Somalia, has highlighted this impoverished island nation's outdated piracy laws.

The weekend arrest of 14 suspected Somali pirates whose vessel broke down off the coast of Madagascar is forcing this East African island to confront piracy for the first time in more than 100 years.

As Somali pirates venture further afield hijacking commercial vessels, more nations are being forced to confront the growing problem, highlighting a common complaint among shipping companies and legal experts: With 19th-century laws for a 21st-century problem, many states either have a lackadaisical approach to bringing pirates to justice, or simply cannot do so under arcane maritime rules.

"This is the first time we are having to deal with this kind of case," says Madagascar's Justice Ministry Secretary General Ernest Ratsimisetra, adding that the problem falls into "a kind of legal vacuum."

The problem is affecting passenger, commercial, and private vessels to deadly effect, as seen with last week's killing of four Americans whose yacht was hijacked in the Arabian Sea. Today, suspected Somali pirates threatened that a Danish family captured in the Indian Ocean will suffer the same fate if any rescue attempt is made.

Arcane laws

The hijacked passenger vessel was towed into Antsiranana on Sunday local time, several days after two of the pirates first took a small boat into this northern port to ask for help and drop off an ill female passenger now hospitalized. After the Comoros-flagged MV Aly Zulfecar was hijacked on Oct. 20 with nine crew and 21 passengers, it became a “mother ship” from which to attack other commercial vessels, but recent storms left it low on fuel and supplies.

Then, after a two-day search, Madagascar authorities located the vessel on Feb. 26 about 80 miles offshore, and arrested 12 more pirates. An investigation is scheduled to conclude today, according to an antipiracy official here, and now the regional prosecutor must review the unprecedented case.

Madagascar Justice Minister Christine Razanamahasoa has said the country is "ready and able" to deal with piracy – but how is hardly clear.

While the prosecutor rifles through national and international maritime agreements to figure out whether the unknown foreigners can be charged with piracy laws last used in the 19th century, justice ministers from Comoros and Madagascar are also questioning who should try them, where they should be tried, and for what.

Even if the prosecutor is unable to charge the foreigners for piracy, adds Mr. Ratsimisetra, the pirates could be charged with illegal detention of the ship's crew. Rolland Rasolofonirina, who heads the antipiracy operation in Antsiranana, said the suspects will at least face charges of lacking identification papers.

Pushing piracy south

Madagascar is one of 17 signatories to the January 2009 Djibouti Code of Conduct, which is aimed at tackling piracy and armed robbery of ships in the Gulf of Aden and western Indian Ocean. But pirates have simply extended their operations closer to Madagascar.

“They are coming farther and farther south with more attempts on boats. About five months ago they tried a fishing boat in Madagascar’s waters,” says Madagascar’s Transport Minister Rolland Ranjatoelina. Amid a 70 percent shortfall to government spending and a transitional parliament still in place from a 2009 coup, Mr. Ranjatoelina says Madagascar can not tackle maritime security of this nature.

“Even with support from the international community, this is a very big problem and we lack the financial means,” he says.

The problem feeds on itself: Nations such as Madagascar lack the means to tackle piracy, which in turn further hurts these nations' economies. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently raised concern over the economic fallout for East African economies amid rising insurance premiums, threats to international trade routes, and piracy's expansion south.

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