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Nations Prove More Willing to Combat Piracy than Prosecuting Pirate Suspects

  • Mariama Diallo

International naval forces have caught scores of alleged pirates off the coast of Somalia in recent years. But few are ever prosecuted, and many simply go free.

U.S. and allied naval forces are having greater success battling piracy off the coast of Somalia.

But despite the recent capture of alleged pirates, finding a place to hold and prosecute remains difficult.

Kenya is one of just two countries in eastern Africa willing to accept and prosecute those accused of piracy. And earlier this year, it stopped, claiming undue strain on the country's justice system.

Only recently after meeting with European Union diplomats did Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula say his country will resume prosecuting alleged pirates. But he warned Kenya won't take them all. "Acceptance is going to be done on a case by case basis. It's not a blanket acceptance. It has to be looked at, discussions have to be entered into, and we must see how best to go about it," he said.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton agrees. "The burden has to be shared, that this country cannot alone deal with this problem," she stated.

And Kenya no longer is the only country. The small African island nation of Seychelles recently began prosecuting pirates for the first time, and is setting up a special court to hear some 31 cases.

On the phone Seychelles Ambassador to the U.N. Ronald Jumeau states, "Already the pirates we are holding is 10 percent or more of our prison capacity. This is where the limitations were. It's how many can we take and handle at any one time compared to the holding prison capacity of Seychelles."

The U.S. and Europe have extradited only a small number of pirate suspects. And only recently in a Dutch court has there been what is believed to be Europe's first trial of Somali pirate suspects.

Between March and April, EU naval forces captured 275 alleged pirates, but only 40 face prosecution. The remaining 235 were released. The so-called catch and release policy is not a viable long-term solution says John Pike, director of the military information website

"One of the problems right now with our anti- piracy effort is the catch and release policy… I think if pirates felt they would face serious penalties, either very long jail time or something worse, they would rethink whether this was a good line of work for them to be in," Pike said.

Pirates captured this Russian ship, and were released after the ship's rescue in early May. But Russian officials say the 10 pirates disappeared at sea, and may have died.

Many countries refuse to take them for fear that such prisoners will seek asylum. They also worry about filling up their jails. But alleged pirates still deserve a fair trial says T. Kumar of Amnesty International.

"The embassies should be involved to provide them not only the family visits or exchange of letters but also they make sure they get adequate legal representation… How do you know he is a pirate? He could be a fisherman. He could be in the place at the wrong time. We don't know," Kumar said. "We want the international community to look at it from a human point of view."

And says Pike of, it should not be regarded as an ordinary crime. "As long as we treat it as a criminal problem, the criminal justice system is not really set up to deal with it," he said. "If we were to treat it as a military problem, we might get some results."

Yet others say, without some sort of strong deterrent, such as a credible threat of prosecution, what is the point of spending millions of dollars capturing pirates?