Kenya sentences pirates to 20 years in prison.
A rash of piracy prosecutions are expected to be concluded imminently in Kenya, clearing some of the backlog of an estimated 400 suspected pirates facing trial in various states internationally.
A Kenyan court sentenced eight Somalis to 20 years in prison for piracy this week after the presiding judge declared that only stiff penalties could act as a deterrent to future pirate activity.
This was just the first in a series of 12 major cases currently working their way through the Mombassa justice system.
A total of 117 pirates are currently being prosecuted in Kenya and Lloyd"s List understands that at least four major cases involving several pirates in each case are expected to reach a conclusion within the next few weeks.
Last week"s judgment was passed after the court heard overwhelming evidence against the eight pirates who attacked the Panama-flagged panamax bulk carrier Powerful in November 2008.
Royal Navy forces arrested the men after a firefight in which two pirates and one fishermen were killed. While the naval patrol was acting at the time under the auspices of NATO"s anti-piracy operation, the suspects were subsequently handed over to the Kenyan authorities and charged by the Kenyan state with piracy in a move that was later to be replicated in the numerous cases now being heard.
Despite claims that the Kenyan courts are unable to cope with the volume or complexity of piracy prosecutions, significant international funding and witness support from governments and navies has expedited piracy cases more rapidly than many had expected.
According to Alan Cole, co-ordinator of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime counter piracy programme, the legal framework for dealing with pirates has proved to be more robust than sceptics had assumed.
?Last week"s case has gone through in 15 months and you can be sure that if it was being tried in the UK it would not have been anywhere near finished in that time,? Mr Cole said. ?Many of the other cases will be resolved in under a year. If you look at cases where pirates have been tried in other countries most have not even got off the starting blocks so Kenya is doing very well.?
While the Kenyan legal system currently has a backlog of 500,000 criminal cases, according to the country"s own attorney general, piracy cases are being fast-tracked, partly because of the political pressure being placed on the courts and partly because of the international assistance being provided.
Mr Cole said suggestions that the Kenyan legal system could not afford or cope with the cases were simply untrue.
?The level of investment we have put in is way in excess of the costs that Kenya is incurring,? he said. ?It"s not an issue of money. There are currently 53,000 people in Kenya"s prison system and we are currently only trying to add 117 to that figure. Any suggestion that there is a capacity issue here is frankly nonsense.?
Despite the rapid progression of cases in Kenya this week"s judgment was only the second major prosecution in the country since significant international anti-piracy operations began off Somalia. A total of 13 regional states have now signed the Djibouti piracy code, effectively committing themselves to establishing laws to criminalise piracy and ensure an ?adequate provisions for the exercise of jurisdiction, conduct of investigations and prosecution of alleged offenders?.
To date, however, only Kenya and the Seychelles have actively started prosecuting pirates with the backing of various UN bodies, navies and shipping companies who routinely have to act as witnesses in the ensuing trials.
Over 200 suspected pirates have been handed over to authorities in Puntland and an estimated 50 suspects are awaiting trial in Somaliland. The Seychelles is prosecuting 11 piracy cases, however several more are expected to be handed over in the next few weeks.