MARITIME PIRACY | UN chief offers options for prosecuting Somali pirates

A full-blown international tribunal for Somali pirates is among options the U.N. chief proposed Wednesday to better prosecute ongoing ship attacks off the African coast.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offered the Security Council seven options for grappling with the piracy problem, ranging from simple legal support for individual nations to a full international court established by the council, the U.N.’s most powerful body.

Ban also condemned Tuesday’s deadly hotel attack in the Somali capital of Mogadishu — the latest example of violence and anarchy that has plagued the country for two decades. Gunfire and a suicide explosion killed 32 people in the attack by militants on a small hotel.

Piracy has become a lucrative business for organized criminal gangs who board ships in the Gulf of Aden or the Indian Ocean — one of the world’s busiest sea lanes — and hold them, their crews and cargos for ransom.

Ban said that during the past seven months there have been 139 piracy-related incidents off Somalia’s coast. Thirty ships have been hijacked. Seventeen ships and 450 seafarers currently are being held for ransom.

The 15-member Security Council has imposed sanctions on pirates and authorized countries to pursue them in Somalia’s territorial waters, using “all necessary means to repress acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea.”

But prosecution of accused pirates has proved difficult, even for the United States. Last week, an American judge dismissed piracy charges against six Somali men accused of attacking a Navy ship off the African coast.

Issuing his ruling in Norfolk, Virginia, U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson concluded that the American government failed to make the case that the men engaged in piracy during an alleged April 10 attack on the USS Ashland in the Gulf of Aden. Defence attorneys had argued that the Ashland defendants did not meet the U.S. legal definition of piracy because they did not take command of and rob the amphibious dock landing ship.

The so-called Contact Group on Somalia, comprising neighbours and other interested countries, has been discussing various legal options for dealing with the piracy problem. But Russia, a Security Council member, earlier this year asked Ban to present options and for the council to get involved.

The Security Council welcomed Ban’s options. It said Ban’s proposals provide “a solid base for future work in order to enhance international, regional and nations co-operation in bringing pirates to justice.”

The options are: basic support for nations in prosecuting suspected pirates; establishment of a Somali court, applying Somali law, in a third state in the region; two variants for helping a regional state or states to establish a special court inside its existing judicial system to conduct piracy trials; a regional court establishment by regional states and the African Union; a international “hybrid” tribunal with national participation by a state in the region; a full internatinal tribunal, established by the Security Council.

In a statement read by Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the council president, the group said it understood the challenges in prosecuting the alleged pirates, including the limited judicial capability and prison capacity of area nations.

Ban said all of his options require the political will and financial commitment of U.N. member states. Needed are a host state, and a structure for prosecuting and imprisoning a large number of suspects arrested at sea.

The secretary-general said Kenya and Seychelles had stepped up in the fight against piracy and Tanzania and Mauritius indicated they would join them. Eleven member states have prosecuted or have convicted nearly 600 Somali men of piracy in the past 18 months, he said.

Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991 when warlords overthrew a longtime dictator and then turned on each other, plunging the country into chaos.

A transitional government was established in 2004 but only controls a few blocks in Mogadishu and depends on the 5,100-strong African Union peacekeeping force. Islamic insurgents control much of the capital and are trying to topple the fragile government.

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