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Nations Struggle With Prosecution of Pirates

May 13, 2010 – 10:09 AM
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Sharon Weinberger

Sharon Weinberger Contributor

(May 13) -- Countries trying to deal with the alarming growth of international piracy have another challenge to face: Even if you manage to capture the pirates, then what do you do with them?

The perplexing details include determining who is responsible for prosecuting the pirates and handling suspects held in custody. When six accused Somali pirates jailed in Virginia were recently asked what they would like to eat, they replied that their preferred food was camel or buffalo meat.

The challenge is rapidly becoming a critical concern for the international community. In just the first quarter of this year, there have been 67 incidents of piracy, according to the London-based International Maritime Bureau.

While piracy in the 1980s and 1990s was also a major concern, it was largely centered on Indonesia and the Singapore Straits. Now it has moved to the coast of Africa and, in particular, Somalia.

In the case of Somalia, the challenge is that the same lack of central governance that allows piracy in the coastal areas to thrive means there's no responsible authority there that foreign governments can turn pirates over to for prosecution. Let them go, however, and the pirates escape justice and can return immediately to a life of crime.

Many of the captured pirates end up in Kenya for trial, mainly because the government there has signed agreements with several countries and has been promised financial assistance for prosecuting pirates, the BBC reports. But that sort of prosecutorial outsourcing has its limits. Kenya has complained that its court system is already strained under the burden of putting Somali pirates on trial, and even when it convicts them, it faces the problem of what to do with them once their terms in prison are complete.

Another option is to bring them to the country that captures them, or whose ship was attacked, as was done with the six Somalis currently being held in Virginia. That option also presents problems: Press reports of the pretrial hearings in Virginia described the six men, who were illiterate, as being confused and unable to comprehend the situation, or even where they were.

Finding a solution that balances justice with humane treatment is not always easy. After Russian military forces freed a hijacked oil tanker, they decided that taking the Somali pirates to Russia for trial wasn't feasible. Instead, the Russian military stripped them of their weapons and navigation equipment, and reportedly let them go.

Later, however, Russian authorities said the freed pirates may have drowned, which raised more questions about how the incident was handled.

In the meantime, a new option on the table might be to try pirates in the Seychelles; the government there, in conjunction with the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, recently announced it would establish a regional center to prosecute pirates. But that, too, has its shortcomings.

"It has got two courtrooms in the whole country and something incredible like 100 capacity in all of its prisons," Roger Middleton, of the London-based think tank Chatham House, told Voice of America News of the proposed plan. "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.".
Filed under: Nation, World, Crime
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