By Mike Mount
Somali pirates captured on the high seas and prosecuted in other countries are now being transferred to a new prison in Somalia. It's a significant change for countries combating piracy but are seeing their own jail systems overwhelmed as the U.S. and other countries continue to catch and turn over pirates to countries willing to prosecute them.
The prison, located in the self-governed northern part of Somalia, accepted its first detainees at the end of March, according to U.S. State Department officials. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime is paying for the transport and the prison facility, according to U.S. State Department officials.
The first prisoners were transferred from the tiny island nation of Seychelles, located off the east coast of Africa, where small facilities have been quickly overcrowded. The new prison is in Hargeisa, the capital of the self-governed breakaway enclave of Somaliland. The region declared its independence in 1991 and has remained relatively violence-free and self-sustaining, unlike the southern part of the country. Somaliland's government will run the facility.
Seychelles, Kenya and Mauritius have offered to prosecute and hold pirate prisoners, but the capacity to keep up with the flood of new arrivals is overwhelming their jails, according to U.S. officials.
"Finding adequate prosecutorial venues and places to incarcerate the pirates is increasingly a challenge as we become victims of our own success in apprehending more pirates," according to a senior State Department official who briefed Security Clearance on anti-piracy issues.
"It could be a step in the right direction," said Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. "And it is convenient for countries that catch them and do not want to hold them indefinitely. It looks good for the international community interested in fighting Somali piracy," she said.
But most governments understand that the solution to fix the piracy problem is on the ground and it will be a slow process once there is a plan.
Bruton agrees, but she thinks prosecuting and holding pirates is not going to be a long-term answer for fixing the piracy problem either.
"The pirates know what the odds are when they get into the business - four out of 10 pirates that go out on the water die. With that mindset, prosecution is not going to be a deterrent," Bruton said.
According to United Nation's statistics, Seychelles has undertaken 31 prosecutions and already convicted 22 suspects while Kenya is trying 69 suspects, having convicted 50.
The U.S. State Department and its partners in the U.N. Contact Group on Piracy off the coast of Somalia have been trying to persuade other countries with high stakes in the shipping industry to assist in prosecutions and imprisonment, according to a senior State Department official.
The official said the U.S. is also assisting as it has prosecuted and imprisoned a number of pirates that attacked U.S. ships off the Somali coast.
State Department officials said although no U.S. ship has been attacked by Somali pirates in the Horn of Africa region in over a year, the U.S. will still continue to prosecute and imprison pirates in the U.S. when needed.