Navy Ponders, What to do With Pirates?
NAIROBI, Kenya - Pirates plucked from the sea by navy warships could be tried anywhere from Mombasa to New York, Paris to Rotterdam - but most are simply set free to wreak havoc again because of legal issues.
The United States, the European Union and Britain all have signed agreements with Somalia's southern neighbor, Kenya, clearing the way for a slew of court cases in the southern port city of Mombasa. And the most prominent recent case - a scrawny Somali teenage pirate who stormed the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama this month and was later arrested by the U.S. Navy - will be tried in New York.
But prosecutions are rare, and they are taking a back seat to protection as navy vessels concentrate on shepherding cargo ships through the Gulf of Aden, a vital short cut between Europe and Asia that is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
"Prosecuting detained pirates, that is simply not our business," said Cmdr. Achim Winkler of the EU mission Atalanta, which has nine warships and three maritime patrol planes guarding shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden.
What happens now to captured pirates often depends on the nationalities of their victims and the navy that detained them.
French soldiers take pirates who have attacked French citizens to Paris; pirates who have attacked other nations are hauled to Kenya, such as the 11 seized Wednesday when the French navy found them stalking a Lebanese-owned ship. India took 24 suspects to Yemen, since half were from there.
The Dutch took five suspects to Rotterdam, where they probably will be tried next month under a 17th-century law against "sea robbery" in an attack on the Dutch Antilles-flagged ship Samanyulo.
Among the difficulties facing prosecutors is assembling witnesses scattered across the globe and finding translators. Many countries are wary of hauling in pirates for trial for fear of being saddled with them after they serve their prison terms.
Some European nations dump detained pirates back into lawless Somalia, said Pottengal Mukundan, director of the Commercial Crimes Services of the International Maritime Bureau.
"I think EU countries are concerned that if the pirates are convicted and spend time in prison, when they finish their sentence, they may not be able to send them back to Somalia," Mukundan said.
Kenya is the most popular destination for suspected pirates. But diplomats privately fear if every suspect is brought to Kenya, it could take years to prosecute because of a backlog of 800,000 cases of all kinds in the country's courts. Some suspects must spend a year or more in jail just to get a hearing.
Kenya's Foreign Ministry said Friday it is studying a proposal to establish a special tribunal but likely would expect richer countries to foot the bill.
Britain, the U.S., Germany and France have brought suspects to Kenya, which convicted 10 pirates arrested by U.S. sailors last year. Each is serving a sentence of seven years - the maximum.
Francis Kadima, a Kenyan who represents seven Somalis accused of attacking a Norwegian-owned vessel in February, said his clients are innocent fishermen who will challenge the legality of being brought to Kenya.
"That agreement is not legally binding" because it has not been ratified by Kenya's parliament, he said, adding: "We will also raise the issue of jurisdiction, since they were not arrested in Kenyan waters."
Jurisdiction questions can lead to problems: The U.S. Navy once held a suspect on a ship for seven months largely due to confusion over where he would be prosecuted.
Wal-i-Musi, the Somali teen who tried to hijack the Maersk Alabama, could have been sent to Kenya, but the U.S. decision to prosecute him in New York could be a sign of Washington's determination to bring pirates to justice.
Prosecutors have not yet said what charges Wal-i-Musi will face.
Meanwhile, a small town in Vermont celebrated the return of the unassuming shipping captain lauded for helping his crew survive a high-seas piracy attack off Somalia.
Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, arrived Friday at his farmhouse in Underhill with his wife, Andrea, to find their home festooned with ribbons and "Welcome Home" balloons, the road full of flag-waving, cheering friends and neighbors.
"To be able to come home, safe and sound, from such a harrowing experience ... oh, how Andrea's heart must be filled with joy right now," said Kathy Wright, a family friend.