Kenyan courts on legal front line in battle to stop Somali pirates

The Times of London
Mombasa, Kenya

Squeezed into the wood-panelled dock, the nine young men wilted in the tropical heat. Overhead a single ceiling fan battled against the crushing coastal humidity that left judge, lawyers, accused and witness sweating in the shabby Kenyan courtroom.

As the suited lawyers for the prosecution and defence parried legalistic blows, a translator changed each half-sentence from English to Somali for the accused men, while Judge Rose Makungu wrote down every word by hand. These sluggish proceedings are the front end of the global fight against piracy.

When suspected pirates are captured by some of the dozens of international warships that patrol the Gulf of Aden and seas off Somalia daily, they are brought to Mombasa to be tried in a Kenyan court.

Agreements signed between Kenya and Britain, the United States and the European Union over the past 12 months, permit the transfers of prisoners, with 107 on trial in 11 cases. A further ten were convicted in 2006 and given seven-year sentences, although the law allows life terms. After Tuesday’s hearing, Oruko Nyarwinda, a smooth Mombasa-based lawyer with matching tie and handkerchief, told The Times that his nine clients were innocent. “These guys had a speedboat with two motors because it bears passengers crossing from Yemen to Somalia. The reason they were carrying a gun is because that place is risky,” he said.

The gun in question, a weather-worn AK47 rifle, lay on the courtroom floor, next to the witness box where David Georgios, the Romanian captain of the 21,000-tonne cargo ship MV Maria K, was giving evidence.

Mr Georgios said that on May 22, nine Somali pirates in a light-blue skiff bore down on the vessel, armed with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher and assault rifles. He told the court that he heard the whoosh of a rocket fired at his ship. He picked out one of the suspects, a slim gap-toothed man with a pointed goatee beard, as being the one wielding the RPG.

The pirate attack was foiled by Mr Georgios’s evasive manoeuvres, swinging the 175m (575ft) vessel from port to starboard, buying time until the arrival of a helicopter from the nearby Italian frigate Maestrale. Italian Marines say that the suspects threw most of their weapons overboard before being apprehended, but at an August hearing one of the alleged pirates, Said Abdalah Haji, said that he and his friends were attacked by the Italian Navy and abducted to Kenya.

The court hearings reveal how difficult it is to prosecute gangs suspected of piracy. The trickiness of securing a conviction is why so many suspects are simply disarmed and sent back to Somalia, prompting consternation and calls for tougher action. But RearAdmiral Peter Hudson, commander of the EU anti-piracy fleet, has little time for such criticisms. “The rules of engagement are fine,” he told The Times. “The issue is that when I detain a mother ship in the middle of the ocean how do I get those pirates into a court of law?

“My aircraft has flown over it, I’ve seen skiffs, fuel, ladders, 15 pirates and no fishing gear, so it’s not out there for a Sunday afternoon sail [but] they haven’t committed an act of piracy.”

The difficulty of proving conspiracy to commit piracy in a court meant that unless the pirates were caught actually engaged in piracy, there was little chance of a conviction. It was “intensely frustrating”. The EU has sent 75 suspects to trial in Kenya, on what Admiral Hudson called “direct linkages … I could have trebled or quadrupled that if we could prosecute for conspiracy”. All are held at the 50-year old Shimo La Tewa prison where 2,000 inmates are incarcerated, just up the road from Mombasa’s famous beach resorts.

Wanini Kireri, the officer in charge, called the pirates “a blessing in disguise” because as part of the deal by which Kenya tries pirate suspects, the judiciary and prison system is getting a minor upgrade. About $7 million (£4 million) in funding is being provided to support piracy prosecutions in Kenya and other courts in the region, notably in the Seychelles. As part of that, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has provided mattresses and blankets, a new kitchen and a better sewerage system. The UN body has also provided support to the courts and lawyers.Mr Nyarwinda, who said he was providing his services without charge, criticised what he called a “lopsided” approach that he said stacked the odds against the suspects, with most funding going to prosecutors and magistrates.

US spy drones are latest weapon in fight against Somali piracy
US spy drones launched from the Seychelles have joined the fight against Somali piracy as the international community searches for ways to end the threat to global shipping routes.

The latest weapon in the battle against the pirates is the remote-controlled MQ9 Reaper surveillance aircraft, with a 20-metre wingspan, capable of flying sorties of up to 18 hours. The aircraft can cover vast areas of ocean much quicker than the warships deployed by the European Union, Nato, the US and other nations.

Vessels at sea almost anywhere within one million square miles of the Somali coast are at risk as pirates now regularly attack vessels as much as 1,000 miles off the African coast. Many of the recent attacks have taken place close to the Seychelles.

Joel Morgan, Transport and Environment Minister for the Seychelles, said: “This [surveillance] programme specifically will be able to help to monitor large areas and detect the presence of pirates who operate in small boats that are often difficult to spot.” The Seychelles economy has been hit hard by piracy. Tourist numbers have fallen as cruise ships and superyachts avoid the dangerous Indian Ocean waters. Income from the tuna fishing industry has also plummeted as fishing boats are targeted by pirates.

The drones deployed over the Indian Ocean are unarmed but Reapers can be equipped with a dozen Hellfire missiles and precision-guided bombs.

In the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan the drones have been deployed for years against suspected al-Qaeda and Taleban targets. US military officials from the Africa Command based in Stuttgart have not ruled out arming the drones. Some analysts believe the drones will also be used to track suspected al-Qaeda operatives in Somalia.

Battle against piracy can only be won in Somalia itself, not at sea
If you think that the fight against piracy can be won at sea, think again. Dozens of warships, helicopter gunships and now spy drones will not stop the Somali pirates who have extended their range so far that recent attacks have taken place closer to India than Africa. They now hunt across a million square miles of water from the Gulf of Aden deep into the Indian Ocean. And there is no shortage of desperate young Somali men willing to join the pirate gangs in the hope of earning enough ransom money to escape Somalia’s Hobbesian dystopia.

Even the commander of the European Union anti-piracy force admits that he has an impossible job. “In a piece of ocean that large we will never close down pirates who are determined to operate up to a thousand miles off the coast of Somalia,” Rear-Admiral Peter Hudson said during a recent visit to Nairobi. “We need to be alive to that reality.”

Patrols can work in constrained areas — for example, the Gulf of Aden, where the EU says there have been no hijackings since July — but this has simply pushed the pirates farther out to sea where pickings are just as rich.

There are at present seven EU frigates and destroyers patrolling alongside a nine-strong Nato fleet, 29 from the US-led Combined Task Force 151, as well as warships from China, India, Japan and Russia.

Although Admiral Hudson admits this is not enough he does not want more: “How many ships do you need? It’s well beyond the means of the European Union and the major countries involved.” Experts reckon that a warship costs on average about £60,000 a day to keep at sea so the sums being spent on this futile task are mind-boggling.

The battlefield where the fight against piracy will be won or lost is war-ravaged Somalia itself but solving that chaos will be a more difficult task then setting navies to send out task forces.

In Mogadishu the 15th internationally backed Government in 18 years is on the verge of failing, just as its unpopular and ineffective predecessors did. It provides no services to Somalia’s benighted people, not even security. It is kept in place only by 5,000 or so African Union soldiers (they are called peacekeepers but there is no peace to keep between the Government and its Islamist rivals). It is their tanks and artillery — enough to outgun the insurgents — that do more than anything to prevent the Government from being chased from the few blocks of the capital over which it holds tenuous sway. Last week’s suicide bombing that killed three ministers in a supposedly government-controlled part of the capital showed again how weak the state is. It is no surprise, then, that pirates are free to take to the seas, grab ships and return with their hostages to Somalia’s 1,700-mile-long coast with impunity.

The problem of piracy is not going to be solved with warships. The long-term solution is ashore in Somalia. And there’s the real problem — because no one knows what that solution is.