Somali piracy comes ashore in Mauritius as pirates are detained and trialed in island courts

“It’s a lucrative business, with ship owners paying between $339 million and $413 million in ransom between 2005 and 2012

Pirates played an important role in the history of Mauritius in the 17th and 18th centuries, and today they are back, as Mauritius has become a key player in the international fight to curb the wave of piracy that is menacing global shipping in the Indian Ocean.
Mauritius is among a handful of other countries in the region - including Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania and the Maldives - that have signed agreements with the European Union and the UK to accept suspected pirates from Somalia for prosecution and trial.
This is an important step in counter-piracy efforts, officials say, because there had been no official means to legally prosecute those accused of attacking ships at sea because Somalia has no stable central government or legal system.
As a result, international navies involved in deterring piracy are often reluctant to take suspects to their own countries because they either lack jurisdiction to conduct trials or worry that pirates will seek asylum. Faced with these uncertainties, international warships often release suspected pirates after a brief detention. The bandits then return to what has become a multi-million dollar business of seizing cargo ships as they move through the Gulf of Aden’s busy shipping lanes that link Europe with Africa and Asia and holding the crew and ship for ransom.
Signed in July 2011, the EU agreement allows for the transfer of suspected pirates for investigation, prosecution, trial and detention in Mauritius and the transfer of any seized property.
Mauritius received $3 million from the EU and UN to set up a court room and build a new prison block on land adjoining the Beau Bassin Central Prison. Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam said at the time of the agreement in 2012 that Mauritius needed to be more active in combating piracy because it was having a negative impact on the island’s security, fishing and tourism.
In June, 2012, Mauritius reached another deal with the UK to allow suspected pirates caught by the Royal Navy to be transferred to Mauritius for prosecution. Prior to that, in May 2012, the government signed an agreement with Somalia to transfer convicted pirates back to Somalia, where they will serve their sentences. The United Nations will pay the costs of transfers to UN-built prisons in Somalia.
Most captured pirates claim that they are simple fishermen, not pirates, but officials say that their captured boats rarely have fishing equipment onboard and instead carry rifles and other weapons like rocket-propelled grenades.
About a dozen Somalis are currently being detained in Mauritius, charged with piracy under the country’s  Piracy and Maritime Violence Act. The trial of 12 suspects seized in a raid by the French Navy last January was held on Nov. 5, but proceedings were suspended after one of the suspects demanded the presence of the French naval officer who arrested him. The Court advised him to enter a motion, which caused a procedural delay, according to U.S. State Department documents. There has been no word since when the trial will resume.
Since signing the transfer agreements with the EU and UK, Mauritius has been updating its laws and actively training its police, judges and lawyers to handle these new anti-piracy demands.
Mauritian law, for example, was modified to expand the definition of piracy so that the government can prosecute not just traditional pirates, but also those who engage in “piracy-like acts on shore, those who enable piracy to and those who finance pirate attacks or those who profit from attacks.” This means that Mauritius will be able to handle the most complex cases, unlike Kenya and Seychelles, whose national laws don’t contain such broad definitions.
Mauritius has benefited from international help in modifying its laws and financing the prison facilities. The United National Office of Drugs and Crime has provided funds for the detention facility at Beau Bassin, and UNODC experts have conducted training sessions for Mauritian attorneys and judges. Law professors from universities in the United States have also provided legal guidance.
“Even without such training session, Mauritian lawyers have more than ample expertise to deal with Somali piracy prosecutions,” Milena Sterio, associate professor at the Cleveland  (Ohio) State University Marshall College of Law, said in a Dec. 26, 2012 blog  in the European Journal of International Law. Sterio, along with Michael Scharf of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, spent a week in Mauritius helping officials prepare for the upcoming piracy trials.
Speaking at the Mauritius Ministry of Justice in December, 2012, Sterio outlined the growing problem of child piracy, saying it has emerged as “one of the most difficult legal issues.” She said most child pirates are released upon capture or immediately after trial and as a result the Somali pirate kingpins are recruiting more and more of them, telling the juveniles that they have nothing to fear if captured.
The American professors recommended that Mauritius authorities use dental and hand x-rays to determine a suspect’s age, amend the Piracy Act to impose greater penalties on those who go to see with child pirates, and specify in the law that recruiting and using child pirates be considered a crime against humanity in addition to piracy.
The EU and Interpol also held workshops in Mauritius last January on Somali culture and techniques of handling Somali inmates. The sessions provided an introduction to human rights requirements and background on Somali piracy at the Prison Training School in Beau Bassin.
The business of piracy is complicated and not well understood, according to a recent cooperative study by the World Bank and the United Nations that interviewed pirates, their financial backers, government officials, middlemen and crime investigators. It’s a lucrative business, with ship owners paying between $339 million and $413 million in ransom between 2005 and 2012. Proceeds flow into legitimate businesses like khat, a narcotic plant, transportation and hotels, and illegitimate ones like human and arms trafficking. Money also flows back to finance further pirate raids. Some financers use profits to set up militias, gain political influence or support religious extremists, including al-Qaeda, the report said.
Private financiers collect the lion share, between 30-70 percent of a ransom, while pirates get $30,000-$75,000 each, with a bonus given to the first man to board a ship and for those bringing their own weapons or ladders. Payments are also given to cooks, pimps, mechanics, lawyers and other local suppliers of goods and services to the pirates.
International efforts to curb piracy seem to be working. After a peak of 237 incidents in 2011, the number of of attacks against commercial vessels off the Horn of Africa dropped to 15 in 2013 and no ship was successfully highjacked, according to a new report by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in London.
Experts attribute this to several factors, including patrols by foreign navies in the Indian Ocean, new procedures required by the shipping industry that involve training, lock down of a boat and the presence of armed security crews onboard, and efforts on land to curb piracy activities, including the establishment of a working government in Somalia in September 2012.
“Pirate attacks over the past year have dropped 95 percent but the fight against piracy is not yet won,” said Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. “It is vital that the international community continues to work together to stamp out piracy and consolidate the gains we have already made.”
While piracy has declined off the east coast of Africa, Somali pirates have moved their operations to other areas, most notably into the southern part of the Red Sea, the east coast of Oman, and more deeply into the Indian Ocean. In addition, the root causes of Somali piracy have are far from being resolved - shaky leadership, extreme poverty, unemployment, and the absence of the rule of law.
Meanwhile, piracy has become an increasing problem off the continent’s west coast, in the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic, where gangs target ships carrying African oil. There were 48 attacks in the area last year, in which 35 people were kidnapped for ransom and one person was killed, according to the IMB report. Attacks are occurring around the coasts of Nigeria, but have also spread to the coasts of Gabon and the Ivory Coast.

What’s the outlook for 2014?
“It’s important to note that although the attacks are down (off Somalia), the risks remain. We still have 64 crew members being held in Somalia, some for more than two and three years,” said Pottengal Mukundan, IMB director.
“Piracy attacks are crimes at sea, but the the rules of piracy come from the land,” he said in a video interview at the launch of the IMB’s year-end piracy report. When governments are weak or break down, piracy can flourish offshore, he explained. “It’s difficult to predict what will happen in 2014. It depends on the geo-political factors onshore in these coastal states.”
That carries a warning for Mauritius, that despite a drop in piracy incidents over the past year, the situation in the Indian Ocean remains unpredictable and volatile. This means that the local court that prosecutes Somali pirates and the Beau Bassin prison that detains them could see more activity in the months ahead.