A Paris-based legal aid network, Lawyers of the World, says agreements signed by the United States, Britain, the European Union, and Denmark to transfer suspected Somali pirates to Kenya for trial violate the human rights of the suspects. The legal group is representing more than 40 detainees captured by European navies off the coast of Somalia and handed over to Kenya for prosecution.
Lawyers of the World representative Avi Singh tells VOA his organization has written to the United Nations, the European Union, and to Kenya's foreign ministry, expressing deep concern that more than 100 suspected pirates awaiting trial in Kenya are being denied basic human rights and the right to a fair trial.
"Under Kenyan domestic law, there is no entitlement to legal aid for anybody who is not accused of a capital offense," said Singh. "So, suspected pirates have no opportunity to have a lawyer. They have no opportunity to review the evidence against them. At no point is there any independent adjudication of whether these people are actually pirates, have actually committed a crime or not. So, basically, you have ship-catching to conviction."
In Kenya, convicted pirates can face life in prison. The east African nation became a venue for piracy trials after a surge in ship hijackings off the coast of Somalia stiffened international resolve to prosecute suspects caught at sea.
Under agreements signed in the past year with the United States, Britain, the European Union, and most recently with Denmark, Kenyan courts are responsible for trying suspected pirates apprehended anywhere in the region by foreign navies. In return, Kenya is said to be receiving funding and support to reform its much-criticized judicial system.
Earlier this year, U.N. human-rights investigator Phillip Alston published a scathing report on widespread judicial corruption in Kenya. The country's courts are also reportedly overwhelmed by a backlog of more than 80,000 cases.
Singh says none of the funds given to the prosecution and courts are making their way to Shimo la Tewa, a notoriously overcrowded prison in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa. He says many of the accused hijackers have been there for months without adequate medical care and access to such basic amenities as soap.
"There are juveniles in there and they all have medical ailments," continued Singh. "There is actually a 14 year-old kid with bullet wounds. There is somebody with a bullet still in the body. They have had no contact with any family members or any opportunity for contact with anybody in Somalia since their arrest."
Earlier this month, Singh and several of his colleagues convinced a court in Mombasa to postpone the trial of 11 alleged hijackers captured by a French warship and in Kenyan custody since April. Singh says he requested the two-month postponement so that the defense could mount a proper case.
Lawyers of the World has asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to deliver food and medicine to piracy suspects and to monitor their treatment in jail.
Horn of Africa analyst Roger Middleton says he agrees that depending on Kenya to help solve the piracy problem in Somalia is less than ideal.
"What it shows, the fact that we are having to use Kenya, is the problem when you o not have a proper legal entity to deal with inside Somalia," said Middleton. "Now, if you pick up a pirate off Portugal, you hand them over to Portugal. If it is Indonesia, you hand them over to Indonesia. And that is the way it should work and the way it works quite sufficiently. But because Somalia is such a mess, you cannot do that and it creates all these problems."
The International Maritime Bureau says it recorded 130 piracy incidents off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden in the first half of this year, compared to just 24 last year. The attacks are continuing, despite constant patrols by no fewer than three dozen ships from multi-national forces and independent flotillas from China, Russia, India, and others.
On Thursday, the U.S. Navy said Somali pirates opened fire on a Navy helicopter, as it was conducting a surveillance of a captured vessel in central Somalia. There were no reported casualties or damage.
The Navy says pirates fired a large caliber weapon at the helicopter as it flew over a Taiwanese-flagged ship, the MV Win Far, used in the attack against the U.S.-flagged Maersk-Alabama in April. The Win Far was captured earlier this year with more than 30 crew members.