Adrift for two months, Somalis to stand trial in Seychelles

The U.S. has finally found a state willing to prosecute 15 pirates captured aboard an Iranian mothership in January 2012. As we noted at the time, there was no convenient location for prosecution. The U.S. had a legal basis to prosecute, but the cost of transferring the Somalis to the U.S. coupled with the risk that some would claim asylum was a deterrent. Iran was not likely to be the prosecuting nation. Although it may have a legal basis in its own domestic legislation to prosecute the pirates, the U.S. might have doubts that the pirates would receive a fair trial there. Further, it would be a public relations coup for Iran if it took possession and prosecuted the pirates. Finally, Somalia still has significant hurdles to overcome before it will be ready to administer fair piracy trials, be it in Somaliland, Puntland, or elsewhere.

Today the nytimes notes:

Fifteen Somali men accused of being pirates, who were captured aboard a hijacked Iranian fishing vessel by the United States Navy in January, were transferred on Tuesday to the Seychelles for trial.

The move from Djibouti to the Seychelles, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, was a welcome development for the United States in a high-profile case that had no clear legal resolution.

It also signaled the end of an intensive interagency effort to find a jurisdiction willing to receive the suspects, who had been held aboard a series of American warships for almost two months.

From its outset, the case, for all its high-seas drama, underscored the difficulties in developing effective and comprehensive programs to fight piracy. Capturing pirates, once international navies applied themselves to the task, has proved easier than bringing them to justice.

None of the nations most directly involved in the case — Somalia, home of the suspects; Iran, home of 13 hostages seized in the case; or the United States, which detained the Somalis — had either the capacity or desire to take on the costs and difficulties of prosecuting the suspects.

And the Seychelles, which in recent years has been a regional hub for hearing piracy cases, had no space in its tiny prison system for more convicts, American officials said.

Nonetheless, the recent transfer of several convicted pirates from Seychelles to Somaliland based upon a bilateral transfer agreement, freed up space in Seychelles to hold these defendants in jail and prosecute them. The U.S. Navy must be breathing a sigh of relief as considerable resources were occupied with maintaining the pirates on board:

A senior Navy officer expressed satisfaction at the Seychelles’ decision, which ended weeks of transferring the suspects among vessels at sea. The pirates, he said, first captured by the Kidd, a destroyer, had been held aboard three nuclear aircraft carriers, another destroyer and an amphibious warship before being brought ashore in Djibouti on Tuesday for a flight aboard an American military C-130 transport plane to the Seychelles.

Following on the London conference, a number of prisoner-transfer agreements were signed by East African states where prosecutions will most often occur and either Somaliland or Puntland, where UNODC is supporting the construction of new prisons. Until these new prisons are built, there will continue to be a bottleneck and could lead to a repeat of this incident where Somalis remain in military custody. This also raises some fair trial concerns. Insofar as it was not clear where they would be prosecuted, the Somalis could not very well have been charged with any offence during their two months in captivity. Piracy would have been the charge, but under which state’s legal system? Moreover, there remain questions as to how the prosecution will obtain eyewitness testimony. As we mentioned before, the Iranian hostages may not be at liberty to provide such testimony in order to support piracy charges for the hijacking of their fishing dhow. In addition, the nytimes notes that two of the pirates claim to be minors. All of that said, a solution has been found to the most pressing issue: where to prosecute. Other issues will remain for another day.

A Globalized System of Criminal Justice

Piracy and armed robbery incidents reported to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre during 2011. Map courtesy of International Chamber of Commerce.

Criminal Justice for pirates has become a truly global affair, utilizing diverse state resources to funnel pirates through a limited number of regional states in East Africa back to their homeland of Somalia. More specifically, the UN’s preferred option for prosecuting Somali pirates will be national prosecutions in several East African states (Seychelles, Mauritius, Kenya, Tanzania) as well as in several semi-autonomous regions of Somalia (Somaliland, Puntland).  Prosecution in European states and the US would remain a backup plan. But this is only one piece of the criminal justice apparatus. Police functions in the Indian Ocean will continue to be performed by a combination of naval coalitions such as NATO and EUNAVFOR and by individual naval states with interests in commercial shipping through the high-risk piracy corridor (including the motley crew of the U.S., India, China, Iran, and others).  At the other end of the criminal justice chain is the prison system where there is currently a bottleneck.  In this regard, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime is in the process of refurbishing and building new prisons in Somaliland and Puntland to house convicted pirates.

This solution has several benefits as compared with the other solutions outlined by Jack Lang in January 2011. Prosecuting pirates in multiple regional states creates redundancies, so that if one or more courts prove incapable of continuing prosecutions, other options remain available. For example, Kenya recently stopped all of its piracy prosecutions due to a High Court decision ruling Kenyan courts did not have jurisdiction over piracy offences. Likewise, the Seychelles recently refused to accept pirates from a Danish ship because there was no guarantee that the pirates, if convicted, could be sent back to Somalia (for lack of prison space) and because the Seychelles’ limited judicial capacity. In situations such as these, other states might serve as back-up solutions so that prosecutions could be directed elsewhere.

Funneling Pirates Back to Somalia

Another advantage of this proposed solution is that it has the benefit of building local capacity. Instead of directing resources into a foreign institution, providing support to local courts and local prosecutors promises to increase the capacity of regional state institutions to address criminal justice issues beyond piracy.

The report also raises hopes that the financiers and organizers of piracy can be adequately addressed by East African states. In relation to Mauritius and Seychelles in particular, the report highlights the capacity of these states to prosecute inchoate crimes such as conspiracy, incitement and attempts to commit piracy. The UK and the Netherlands are funding a Regional Anti-Piracy Prosecutions Intelligence Co-ordination Centre (RAPPICC) in Seychelles, in part, for this purpose. This capability will be crucial in order to bring to justice those individuals who organize pirate enterprises, but never step foot on board a pirate vessel.

There will be heavy reliance on prisons in Puntland and Somaliland

However, the report and the plan are lacking in several respects.  First, the cost savings of this plan have likely been exaggerated. There is no final accounting provided in the UNSG report. But a cursory survey of the various costs associated with refurbishing courtrooms, providing expert assistance, hiring additional judges and prosecutors, conducting trainings and, especially building prisons, shows a quickly rising price tag. Combine this with additional unspecified costs that would likely accompany this proposal such as rule of law, general training, and governance projects and the costs may actually be about the same as a hybrid tribunal such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone or the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (about $40 million each annually). In any event, the proposed solution’s budget is modest compared with the sums that are currently being dumped into unsustainable solutions that fail to address the root of the problem.

In addition, the UNSG report apparently hazards some guesses as to the potential of its proposed course of action. Despite the different conditions in each country or region, the report indicates that Somaliland, Puntland, Kenya, and Mauritius will be capable of performing piracy investigations in 20 months and within two years would be able to prosecute 24 cases of 10 defendants each. These are good benchmarks to evaluate the success of these projects.  But it is hard to believe that they are realistic assessments of local conditions. The report evaluates the local capacities of each state/region indicating the number of prosecutors and judges in each. But it fails to compare these numbers of professionals to the actual populations that they must serve. Three hundred and five (305) Prosecutors in Tanzania seems to be a significant number compared to the 36 prosecutors for the whole of Somaliland. However, Tanzania’s population is 43.5 million and the population in Somaliland appears to be around 3.5 million. Therefore, the number of prosecutors per capita in Somaliland (1/10,000) is higher than in Tanzania (1/140,000). In addition, only 10 Tanzanian prosecutors would be in charge of piracy prosecutions. Likewise, the report fails to take into consideration the caseload of the respective prosecutorial groups that would be responsible for piracy prosecutions (i.e. the number of cases each attorney is responsible for, thereby dictating how much time they would have to devote to piracy cases). This suggests the projected capacities are not based upon a realistic assessment of current capacity.

More importantly, the report acknowledges that it was unable to predict with any accuracy the number of piracy cases that would likely proceed to trial. That is, how much prosecutorial and penal resources will likely be required in the next few years.  Due to the volatility of Somalia, the changing tactics of pirates and of commercial vessels responding with various self-defence measures, an accurate assessment in this regard is quite difficult. However, the report suggests that anticipating the numbers of piracy suspects likely to be apprehended at sea and transferred to regional states for prosecution was not possible because no information was available as to the reasons for the release of piracy suspects from the numerous states conducting naval anti-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean.  It is unclear why the UNSG was unable to obtain this information from various member states of the United Nations. But it has certainly left a conspicuous gap in the report’s findings.

Finally, the report ends without any recommendations as to how to prevent recidivism, including programs to retrain Somali prisoners and integrate them back into the community. In this regard, the proposed solution is short-sighted, enabling the relocation of pirates back to Somalia, but providing no real long-term preventative measures. The only permanent solution to piracy is a stable and economically prosperous Somalia. Hopefully, the London Conference can initiate positive reforms in this regard as it is widely accepted that the solution or piracy resides on land, and not at sea.

Seychelles positions itself as anti-piracy command

Crew from HMS RICHMOND provide technical assistance to Seychelles Coastguard - Source: EUNAVFOR

Seychelles has been one of the international community’s preferred partners in the fight against piracy. There is productive, on-going cooperation between the country and, amongst others, INTERPOL, EUNAVFOR, UNODC. Likewise, in March 2010, Seychelles National Assembly amended its penal code to re-define piracy in line with the definition in the 1982 LOS Convention which Seychelles ratified in 1991.

In a recent interview, President James Michel highlighted some new initiatives of his government. He noted that, “Seychelles [is] becoming the anti-piracy hub for our international allies, who are committed to the fight against piracy.” In addition, President James Michel emphasized the need to focus police and prosecutorial resources on the financiers of piracy, “Piracy has developed into a lucrative business model and therefore more emphasis needs to be made to target the financiers of piracy, to eliminate the criminal networks and bring to justice the main profiteers of this business.” Therefore, he stated:

We are in the process of setting up a Regional Anti-Piracy Prosecution and Intelligence Centre, with the support of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the UK and its Serious Organised Crime Agency, that will coordinate the tracking of financial transactions and enforcement operations. This will, in turn, assist law enforcement agencies to build cases needed to issue international arrest warrants and prosecute the financiers of piracy.

However, he noted certain constraints on Seychelles’ ability to continue such projects.

We are committed to coordinating international efforts and seek greater participation by all countries in terms of assets, resources and to highlight the adverse effects for small island states such as Seychelles. We have also been at the forefront of prosecuting pirates by framing new anti-piracy laws and formulating partnerships with Somali authorities for the transfer of convicted pirates. We have taken these initiatives despite the tremendous strain on our limited resources.

Main Prison at Bosaso, Puntland - Source: SomaliaReport.com

For example, he explains that 12 % of the prison population in Seychelles is made up of Somali Pirates (although it is noted elsewhere that this consists of 76 prisoners). In addition, his government signed a prisoner transfer agreement with Puntland in early 2011. However, the transfer agreement will likely only take effect upon the completion of new UN-funded prisons in Puntland. This must explain in part the recent decision to refuse the transfer of 24 suspected Somali pirates from the Danish Navy. With Kenya still reticent to recommence prosecutions, and other regional states only taking on a handful of Somali pirates, there will be significant pressure for the Seychelles to pick up the slack and take on significantly more cases. Although Seychelles continues to be one of very few willing regional partners in East Africa and the Indian Ocean, its assistance is necessarily contingent upon continuing financial and other assistance from international powers.

Piracy Report Tomorrow

Jack Lang, the Special Adviser on Legal Issues related to Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, is due to issue his report tomorrow.  Lang was appointed by the Secretary General last August to:

identify any additional steps that can be taken to assist States in the region, as well as other States, to prosecute and imprison persons who engage in piracy; and explore the willingness of States in the region to serve as potential host for any of the options for potential new judicial mechanisms set out in the report of the Secretary-General.

The 26 July 2010 Secretary General’s Report set out 7 options to prosecute and imprison suspected acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia, including creating a special domestic chambers with international components, a regional tribunal or an international tribunal. [For further discussion, see the report: Suppressing Maritime Piracy -Exploring the Options in International Law.]

One of the options discussed by the Report, and which has been favored as a practical matter until present, has been to provide financial support to States within the region to prosecute suspected pirates in their national courts invoking universal jurisdiction. In this regard, the UN Office for Drugs and Crime and other donors have provided $5 million to refurbish the Shimo La Tewa court and prison in Mombasa where the suspects were being tried by Kenyan prosecutors.  The Seychelles has also started prosecuting pirates in its national courts with some assistance from the UN. Despite these efforts, Jack Lang, says that 9 out of every 10 pirates captured by marines are freed. Furthermore, in November 2010, the Kenyan High Court held that the Kenyan penal code does not give Kenyan courts jurisdiction over piracy on international waters, rendering in doubt any convictions obtained to date and casting a shadow on further efforts to prosecute suspected pirates in Kenyan courts.

The question now is what measures Jack Lang will propose. He hopes for a Security Council Resolution within three to four weeks.

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