- 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.

Regional nations also encouraged Somaliland to consider taking prisoners from other regions. In the island nation of Seychelles, pirates make up about 20 percent of the prison population.

“We are a small nation - 86,000 people,” said Joseph Nourrice, the ambassador from Seychelles.

“We have done our part. Our position is that once we prosecute and convict the pirates, they should serve their sentence in their country of origin.”

The new prison is just the first of several reforms needed eventually for Somalia to convict and jail its own pirates, the ultimate aim of the U.N. strategy. Somaliland is the most stable and secure of Somalia’s three regions.

It still lacks an anti-piracy law, and officials acknowledge evidence is sometimes circumstantial.

In the local police station in Berbera, five men recently sat huddled in a stinking cell. They insisted, like almost all the prisoners interviewed by The Associated Press, that they are fishermen unjustly detained. The local coast guard said they were caught with a GPS navigator, no fishing equipment and that they threw weapons over the side of their boat.

The men gave different stories. They claimed they were fishing with their hands for lobster or scouting for fish.

“I’m innocent,” said Omar Abdullahi Abdi, while squatting on his knees. “We are all innocent.”

They will probably be convicted; but unless the coast guard can produce weapons, it is unclear under what law. The typical sentence for piracy in Somaliland is about 15 years in prison, but that can be reduced or overturned on appeal.

Ahmed Mohamed Adam, one of the inmates in the new prison, was one whose sentence was reduced. The lanky 23-year-old wore the canary-yellow cotton outfits issued to high-risk prisoners. He said he was sentenced to 20 years for sailing in a skiff that the coast guard claimed was marked as a pirate boat by international navies.

He said he was a fisherman and had no weapons when arrested. Ahmed’s sentence was reduced to 20 months on appeal. He will leave the new maximum security prison next month.

U.N. officials acknowledge that the justice system is flawed but say they are working on it. Puntland recently signed a new anti-piracy law, and Somaliland is expected to soon, Mr. Cole said. There are programs in place to support and train court officials. But it will take years.

In the meantime, the new prison will gradually fill up with men in yellow uniforms.

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