- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

HARGEISA, Somalia | A new maximum-security prison opened in northern Somalia on Tuesday, raising hopes that it can help relieve the burden on other nations plagued by pirates but reluctant to incarcerate them.

Most suspected pirates captured by international warships are released because other nations do not want to jail them, and most Somali prisons and courts are not up to international standards.

Naval officers nicknamed the problem “catch-and-release” and say it is one reason pirates continue to threaten one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

There have been notable exceptions to the lack of prosecution. A U.S. court this month sentenced five men convicted of piracy to life in prison. Another American court is trying 13 Somalis and a man from Yemen over a February hijacking of a yacht that left four Americans dead.

As piracy has flourished and turned increasingly violent, an unprecedented 17 countries are prosecuting pirates. Still, Somali jails have borne most of the burden. Officials in Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland have had to release low-level criminals to make room for pirates in the overcrowded jail in the port city of Bosasso.

The United Nations, which paid for the $1.5 million refurbishment of Hargeisa prison, says the facility is equipped to receive international transfers of prisoners. Compared to the overcrowded, rusty lockups elsewhere around Somalia, the cream corridors and 10-man dormitories of the redesigned prison seem spacious, sanitary and relatively comfortable.

Inmates say they get three meals a day and receive medical attention and visits from family members.

Somaliland, a breakaway republic in northern Somalia, has already said it will accept any convicted Somalilanders, and officials hope that other nations may eventually transfer convicted pirates from other regions in Somalia.

“It’s entirely a matter for Somaliland, but we’d be delighted if they said, ‘Yes,’ ” said Alan Cole of the U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime.

He said the United Nations plans to build two 500-bed prisons in Somalia over the next few years to help house more convicted pirates. One will be in Garowe, capital of Puntland. The other location has yet to be decided.

There are currently about 70 convicted pirates in custody in Somaliland, most of whom were captured by the local coast guard and are now housed in the new prison. But government officials say security worries mean they are reluctant to take Somalis from other regions, especially from the region’s arch rival Puntland.

“Some pirates have already attacked our private transport cars,” said Somaliland Minister of Justice Ismail Mumu Aar, describing attacks on Somaliland vehicles that began in October.

“Our people have been threatened … [The pirates] said, ‘Bring our people back or your people will stay with us.’ “

Mr. Cole said that problem could be solved if Somaliland agreed to only accept volunteers for transfer. Many pirates wanted to come back to Somalia to be closer to their families, he said.

Seventeen countries currently hold around 950 pirates, about two-thirds of whom have been convicted.

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