Farah Ismael Idle strutted into the press-packed conference room with the insouciance of a celebrity. A white prayer cap complemented a prison jumpsuit in yellow, a colour that in Somaliland’s Hargeisa prison distinguishes him as a pirate from rank-and-file inmates, dressed in blue. Though he may in no way resemble the Johnny Depp of the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean, he is one of hundreds of infamous—if unsuccessful—pirates of the Gulf of Aden.
Of slight build and fine-boned good looks, his first words were a demand for money in exchange for an interview. He is press savvy. A cheeky request, considering more than a dozen of us journalists sat in front of him. Had it worked, he’d have garnered a small but sufficient ransom, enough to keep him in khat or miraa, an organic stimulant, for a couple of weeks.
“I’m no pirate, I’m a fisherman,” Farah intoned in what seems to have become a pirate mantra. “The real criminals are the foreigners who are stealing my fish and destroying my seas.” He added that he was arrested on land as a suspected pirate on grounds of violating immigration laws, but without any evidence of weapons. “I am innocent,” he implored.
Legend has it that the region’s modern piracy was born of fishermen’s need to exact a toll on commercial and fishing vessels, which after Somalia’s President Siad Barre’s military regime collapsed in 1991 began trespassing in Somalia’s unprotected waters, plundering tuna stocks and dumping toxic and sometimes radioactive waste.
Farah has relatives and friends from his home in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland convinced he is folk hero, a rebel with a cause as he “donates to the community” through purchases of SUVs, khat in bulk and building of mansions.
Not everyone buys that philanthropy-based explanation.
According to Farah, he and his comrades ran out of fuel while fishing and drifted onto Somaliland’s shores near the port of Berbera. He conceded that neighbours who suspected he was a pirate had snitched to authorities on his whereabouts and he was rousted out of bed one night and hauled off to the Berbera police station.
If not for the Somalilanders’ sense of civic responsibility—as well as their being fed up with rising food and fuel prices due to piracy—Farah might still be commandeering vessels in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The Berbera court handed him a 15-year sentence to be served in Hargeisa’s freshly revamped prison, a US$1.4 million project funded and monitored by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
Given that Somaliland lacks an anti-piracy law, a neighbourhood watch is one initiative taken by the breakaway republic to curb piracy in the otherwise failed state of greater Somalia. Twenty years of war, poverty, and lack of infrastructure and financial institutions has made Somalia the perfect storm for piracy.
Without a central government to control their waters, fishermen created a volunteer coast guard. Organizing themselves into groups of two or three dozen, they used several fast-moving skiffs (often boats formerly used to deliver food aid from the World Food Programme) to intercept the foreign fishing vessels. In the mid-nineties, pirates were receiving approximately US$100,000 per ship in ‘taxes’ and ‘fines’.
Eventually, captains of large ships, anxious to meet their maritime schedules, began doling out sums larger than the fisherman were exacting. Some had even pre-scheduled their fines in advance of the pirates’ interceptions. These days though the eco-pirate motive is especially flimsy, given that most hijacked ships are no longer fishing vessels but oil tankers, merchant vessels and even leisure yachts.
However it got started—and it seems plausibly to have been a combination of both motives—need eventually gave way to greed. As with much organized crime (and the mafia comes to mind as just one example), what may have begun as vigilantism evolved into a lucrative industry.
Since January 2010, Somali pirates have received approximately US$75–85 million in ransom, costing the shipping business millions more in loss of revenue and added security measures. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the US, Somali pirates now operate “in a sea space of approximately 2.5 million nautical square miles, an increase from approximately 1 million nautical square miles two years ago.”
As of this writing, 79 ships were being held for ransom as far from the Somali basin as Madagascar. The average ransom payment is US$4 million. Several nations have successfully interdicted pirates and found their way to cooperation. But those who catch pirates don’t want them.
Despite 18 nations having prosecuted over 900 pirates, not a single country has been willing to provide long-term imprisonment. “Incarceration remains the most significant constraint in piracy prosecutions,” said Donna Hopkins, the US State Department’s coordinator for counter-piracy and maritime security.
The Seychelles Islands are willing to prosecute, but not house pirates for any length of time. Same goes for Kenya. Dozens of pirates were recently sprung from Mombasa’s maximum-security prison due to legal loopholes. Navies call the costly and futile procedure ‘catch and release’.
A conspicuous exception has been the recent life sentences for the pirates caught hijacking the US-flagged vessel Maersk Alabamain 2009. The US prosecuted them under an obscure1880 piracy law. The US is also prosecuting pirates associated with February’s botched hijacking and attempted rescue off the coast of Oman that resulted in the murder of four Americans in their yacht The Quest.
Jack Lang, appointed last year as special United Nations adviser on legal issues related to Somali piracy, has suggested creating an international court for pirates in Arusha, Tanzania, but even this undertaking is likely cost prohibitive. Hopkins and other officials agree that it’s least expensive and makes most sense for pirates to be returned to their homeland, if only to be kept near their families.
The international community’s mantra seems to be, “Somali solutions to Somali problems”. But to this end, Somalia needs some semblance of a functioning central government—difficult to achieve in Somalia’s constantly warring clan-based socieSouth Somalia has refused to pass an anti-piracy law. Puntland has one but more often than not, it is compromised by clan corruption. Somaliland, on the other hand, has proven in recent years the most stable and democratic of the country’s three regions. At the moment, Somaliland arrests, prosecutes, sentences and now houses pirates apprehended in Somaliland. It’s not clear whether Hargeisa prison is intended as a regional, Guantanamo Bay-like facility for pirates caught anywhere or as a model for other countries to adopt.
In any case, the Hargeisa “prison for pirates” seems the best interim solution.
The UN Development Programme and later the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) were given a mandate to operate in Somaliland after members of Amnesty International were alarmed by the prison’s filthy conditions.
Announcing the inauguration of the new Hargeisa prison, Wayne Miller, an Australian former detective turned media coordinator for UNODC, invited 40 journalists to witness the event. It was Somaliland’s largest media event to date.
“We want to get the word out to young men that one in three pirates dies at sea; they may starve or they may get shot,” Miller told me while we pitched and rolled in a Chinese minivan hired for the press event. “If you don’t die, you get caught and land a 22-year prison sentence.”
Hargeisa prison houses over 400 prisoners and about 70 are convicted pirates. The prison meets international standards for maximum security and humane conditions
Challenges to imprisoning pirates soon became apparent when, according to Guleid Ahmed Dafa, one of Somaliland’s top prosecutors, pirates from chief-rival Puntland hijacked Somaliland trucks and demanded the return of their pirates.
When I met Farah Ismael Idle, he had served 4 years of his 15-year sentence. With the newly established government (and in light of lack of evidence), his sentence was reduced on appeal. Farah vows that when he leaves prison in three years’ time he will return to pirating and “get it right”.
Understandably, Somaliland wants to distance itself from lawless Somalia in a host of ways, especially since Somaliland strives to become an internationally recognized sovereign state. Here emerges a vicious circle: the US demands that their legal system meet international standards to combat piracy, yet, even if it does, it remains uncertain whether the US and the EU will recognize Somaliland. And aid organizations are reluctant to fund states that are not internationally recognized and autonomous.
UNODC has pumped funds into Somaliland’s coast guard. In the dank, Berbera police station reeking of urine, we met a group of newly arrested pirates bound for Hargeisa prison. They too pleaded innocent and insisted they had only been fishing. They were asked why they had been apprehended hundreds of miles out to sea. The coast guard had confirmed that they had found on board a global positioning system (GPS) and no sign of fishing equipment (and no catch). The arrestees claimed they’d been diving bare handed for lobster
Denouncing the Coast Guard for maritime profiling is a convenient but flimsy defence by those accused. But it’s still not clear under what law the alleged pirates might be prosecuted without evidence of weapons, which may have been thrown overboard when they spotted the Coast Guard. “Accused pirates need fair trials,” added prosecutor Guleid. “They need to get convicted as pirates, not as robbers or for illegal possession of weapons.”
Even with incarceration, there’s very little that would stop those aspiring to be pirates, given the potential of staggering loot.
On our last visit to Hargeisa prison we met a young man of about 20 years, clad in a blue prison jumpsuit, imprisoned for a petty crime. We asked him when he would get out. Like Farah, he began by giving us the silent treatment. But we stood our ground and refused to shell out any money. Eventually, he told us he would appeal for a shorter term. And when he gets out, he said, a smile creeping onto his face, he would become a pirate. If Somaliland has anything to do with it, he may one day return to prison and graduate to a yellow prison jumpsuit.
Recently, foreign minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Omar, issued a statement in a local newspaper saying that Somaliland refuses to accept pirates apprehended and prosecuted outside the region. The reasons are simple. The number of pirates being apprehended amounts to more than what Hargeisa prison is able—and willing—to accommodate. Besides, as Somalilanders say, “we don’t want any more pirates on our turf than necessary”. I’m reminded of the University of Hargeisa’s motto that I glimpsed on a sign one day en route from the prison to our hotel: “The road to success is always under construction.”