Where to try pirates: Kenya? US?

NAIROBI, Kenya — Nine young Somali men were squeezed into the wood-paneled dock while overhead a ceiling fan battled vainly against the crushing coastal humidity that left judge, lawyers, accused and witness alike sweating in the shabby Kenyan courtroom.

The suspects were accused of attempting to hijack the 21,000-ton MV Maria K in May last year.

As the suited lawyers for prosecution and defense parried legalistic blows, a translator changed each half-sentence from English to Somali so the suspects could understand what was going on. The judge in the Mombasa court laboriously recorded everything by hand.

On the floor lay a rusty old AK47 automatic rifle. The prosecution said this was evidence of ill intent, the defense said it was for self-defense in dangerous waters. The trial has dragged on for months.

Last week, half a world away, a similar trial of suspected pirates began. Eleven Somali men charged with piracy appeared at court in Norfolk, Va. They were a motley crew, as Somali pirates tend to be: One walked with crutches and had a bandage wrapped around his head, another was an amputee in a wheelchair.

The suspects did not enter pleas in response to charges of piracy on the high seas, plunder against vessels, assault and firearms violations but if convicted the men could face life in prison.

It was the second time suspected Somali pirates have appeared before a U.S. court, but it is unlikely to be the last since Kenya, which has been trying well over 100 suspects, says it can no longer bear the burden on its judicial system and efforts to establish an international court to deal with piracy appear a distant dream.

This week the 15-member United Nations Security Council unanimously voted in favor of a plan to establish special courts to try pirates. The resolution said the failure to bring pirates to justice “undermines [the] anti-piracy efforts of the international community.” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been asked to come up with a plan within three months.

In the meantime it is unclear what will be done with suspects who are apprehended almost weekly by scores of international warships patrolling against pirates along Somalia’s coast. The difficulty of catching pirates red-handed and of proving intent to commit piracy if they are not caught in the act means that many are simply released after their equipment has been destroyed.

Kenya has been trying many of the pirate suspects in its court system but this month said it was fed up with almost single-handedly bearing the burden of prosecuting Somali pirates.

“We discharged our international obligation. Others shied away from doing so. And we cannot bear the burden of the international responsibility,” said Kenya’s Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula at a press conference in the capital Nairobi.

The Seychelles has also agreed to prosecute a few cases but none of the other regional countries have been keen to do so.

European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton is due to visit Kenya, the Seychelles, Tanzania and Uganda soon to reiterate Europe’s desire that suspects be tried in Africa. At the same time, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime is funding the rehabilitation of prisons in the semi-autonomous Somali regions of Puntland and Somaliland where it is hoped convicted pirates will be jailed.

Last year Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, a Somali teenager, was charged with piracy in a New York court. He was the only surviving member of a four-strong pirate gang that kidnapped Richard Phillips, captain of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama, last April. The four-day standoff riveted American audiences and ended with the shooting to death of three of the pirates by Navy SEAL snipers.

Unlike the arrest of Muse, the circumstances of the capture of the 11 suspects who appeared before a Virginia magistrate last week shows how opportunistic, and sometimes ill-conceived, pirate attacks are. In two separate assaults, on March 31 and April 10, gangs of pirates launched attacks on U.S. Navy vessels mistaking them for merchant ships.

Despite such occasional farce, piracy remains a dangerous problem. According to figures released by the International Maritime Bureau, there were 35 attacks by Somali pirates in the first three months of this year with nine vessels seized.

“Somali pirates are dangerous and are prepared to fire their automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades at vessels in order to stop them,” the IMB said.

The number of attacks has fallen compared with the same period last year when 62 incidents were reported in the first three months (and a total of 217 for the year) but the pirates’ range has expanded, and despite the presence of warships from the EU, NATO and a U.S.-led task force CTF-151 the attacks continue.

This month Somali pirates attacked a group of three Thai fishing vessels taking 77 crew members hostage. It was the biggest single haul of captives so far recorded and one of the longest-range attacks ever, almost 1,400 miles off the Somali coast.

All told it is estimated that around 20 vessels and well over 300 crew members are currently being held for ransom.