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Seychelles to Establish Regional Court to Prosecute Pirates

An arrested Somali pirate is handcuffed by police upon his arrival in Port Victoria, 31 Mar 2010, with the six Seychellois fishermen, who were taken hostage by Somali pirates

In an effort to combat piracy off of the East African coast, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime and the government of the Seychelles have announced the establishment of a regional center to prosecute suspected pirates on the tiny island nation.

The establishment of the center will allow the European Union Naval Force Somalia, which patrols the Gulf of Aden, to transfer captured pirates to the Seychelles for prosecution. This is the second such institution of its kind, the first residing in Kenya.

In addition to U.N. support, the new center will receive funding from the European Union, Australia, Canada and Germany aimed at strengthening the nation's jurisdictional and procedural capacity to prosecute pirates arrested in the region.

The European Union Naval Force Somalia and the Vienna-based U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime already operates a counter-piracy program based in the Seychelles which will train and assist the nation's coast guard, police and prison officials to properly receive and detain suspects.

Piracy has become a large problem for the small nation over the past year. Increased international patrols in piracy hot spots around East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have forced pirates to operate farther afield. In March, Somali pirates hijacked a ship near Indian waters, more than 1,600 kilometers off the Somali coast, and pirates now regularly prey on shipping lanes near the Seychelles.

The Seychelles began prosecuting piracy in March, when 11 pirates were arrested off its coast with assistance of the European Union. A further 11 pirates were transferred to Seychelles authorities after being captured by the French Navy near Somalia the same week.

The country has amended its criminal code to allow its courts to prosecute suspected pirates under universal jurisdiction, and many hope the new institution will ease the burden currently placed on Kenya.

But a Horn of Africa analyst for London-based think tank Chatham House, Roger Middleton, says the nation's capacity is too small to solve the problem.

"It is so tiny. It has got two courtrooms in the whole country and something incredible like 100 capacity in all of its prisons. It is really tiny, so it is only going to be able to deal with a very small amount of the pirates that are captured," said Middleton. "There is a huge shortfall and western countries still do not want to take pirates home to deal with them, so they are going to have to find somebody else or other way of get them prosecuted. There are a lot of pirates out there, and no enormous amount of space to send them."

Pirates captured in the region are supposed to be prosecuted in Kenya. The government has separately agreed with the US, EU, Britain, Canada, Denmark and China to accept Somali pirates but in March the country refused to take any more, arguing that the burden should be equally shared among the international community.

Kenya's judicial system is notoriously slow and its prisons already overcrowded. Kenyan officials have asked for additional support to ease the strain, but have not yet specified what is needed.

The Seychelles court will help to alleviate the judicial burden, but it does not solve the problem of imprisonment. While the country has agreed to prosecute the suspects, it has asserted that those convicted be returned to Somalia to serve their sentences.

Many countries agree to this sentiment in principle but Somalia has been without a functioning government for over 20 years, and lacks any capacity to handle the prisoners. The U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government is currently beset by multiple Islamist groups attempting to overthrow it and can barely maintain control over small parts of its capital, Mogadishu.

And even if it were possible to return the convicted pirates, many fear that bribes paid with the millions of dollars in ransom money earned by the pirates would easily secure their freedom.

The U.N. Security Council asked Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to draft a plan for the future prosecution and imprisonment of pirates last month. The plan, which is due around late July, could establish a tribunal to deal with the issue, but until then the prosecution of Somali pirates will remain an international puzzle.