HARGESIA, Somalia // With aid from the United Nations, an autonomous region of Somalia officially opened a new prison for pirates yesterday, one of several that the international organisation aims to build in the Horn of Africa to help deter marauders at sea.
Despite the rising scourge of piracy, most of it carried out by Somalis, governments around the world have been reluctant to prosecute piracy cases out of an unwillingness to assume the burden of housing prisoners for lengthy jail terms. The new prison here and others like it are intended to ease that strain.
The new jail in Hargesia, the capital of this autonomous region, known as Somaliland, can hold 460 prisoners. The facility currently houses 300 prisoners, 40 to 70 of whom are pirates convicted in local courts, UN and local officials officials said. While the facility was officially dedicated yesterday, inmates began arriving in groups in November.
The prison’s thick walls are topped with barbed wire and its metal doors are painted green. In the prison courtyard, inmates in crisp blue or yellow uniforms roamed yesterday. A column of men bound together by a metal chain attached at their wrists shuffled past. They sleep 10 to a cell.
To encourage humane prison practices in a region where squalid jails are the rule, more than 200 prison staff received several weeks’ training from foreign experts. They will continue to receive advice and aid from the UN, which is assigning two staff members to the prison.
Yury Fedotov, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which oversees the world body’s counter-piracy programme, yesterday praised the new facility, calling it a “model” for the region.
Problems remain, beginning in Somaliland itself. It has so far resisted international pressure to take pirates convicted overseas unless they originally came from Somaliland.
Its “Somalilander-only” policy stems from its long-standing desire to break away from the rest of the country and its feeling that it is not part of the Somali nation.
>Ismail Mooummin Aar, the Somaliland minister of justice, said: “We accept all Somalilanders in the world, but we don’t accept non-Somalilanders. We don’t have the capacity. We don’t see them as nationals.”
Mr Aar said the neighbouring Somali region of Puntland, where most pirates hail from, might try to force Somaliland to release Puntland citizens from jail. In turn, that may lead to fighting in a country rife with it.
To avoid compounding long-standing regional tensions and rivalries inside Somalia, the UN has won agreement from Puntland to accept pirates convicted abroad. The problem is, there is no prison space in Puntland to house them.
However, Alan Cole, who heads the UN's counterpiracy programme, said he hoped Somaliland would agree to take all overseas pirates as well. Puntland officials say they will jail pirates convicted in foreign courts, no matter where the hail from.
“The hope is Somaliland will look favourably upon the same proposition,” Mr Cole said.
If the new prison here is a model”for the region, as Mr Fedotov insists, it is a model that begs for emulation.
In the past year, pirates branched out from the Gulf of Aden into the Indian Ocean and raised their ransom demands to the millions. Sixteen countries from the US to Kenya to South Korea have detained or convicted 950 pirates, but thousands more remain, the UN says.
Besides an unwillingness to assume responsbility for imprisoning convicted pirates for lengthy terms, many nations are reluctant to bear the cost of trying pirates and many have not amended their laws to ensure their courts have jurisdiction. In addition, Western countries fear detainees will seek asylum.
Member states of the UN anti-piracy contact group last week stressed the need to send Somali pirate prisoners home at a meetingin New York.
“The group focused on the need increase prison capacity in Somalia and to arrive at transfer agreements that would allow for convicted pirates to serve out their sentences in that country,” the chairman of the group, Ertugrul Apakan, from Turkey said at a news conference.
The UN is also building a 60-bed prison in the Seychelles, which has taken a lead in prosecuting pirates. Its 450-bed prison, 45 of which are occupied by pirates, is currently full.
Without more prison space, the Seychelles will be reluctant to try more pirates unless absolutely necessary, the Seychelles prison superintendent Maxime Tirant said.
“We were hoping somehow that things could be different, that Somaliland could receive them,” Mr Tirant said. “We still can negotiate further in the hope that some pressure will be brought to bear somewhere down the line.”