Connect to share and comment

Where to try pirates: Kenya? US?

Kenya's justice system is overwhelmed with trials of more than 100 suspected Somali pirates.

Suspected Somali pirates captured by British Navy officials in the Gulf of Aden stand in a cell at the court in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, April 28, 2010. (Joseph Okanga/Reuters)

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.