United Nations Opens Prison in Somaliland Capital for Pirates

United Nations Opens Prison in Somaliland Capital
A Somali inmate looks out from his cell on March 29, 2011 from the UN-funded prison in Hargeisa, the capital of Somalia's self-declared state of Somaliland. Photographer: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Somaliland, a breakaway enclave in northern Somalia, opened a maximum-security prison built with United Nations funding that allows convicted pirates to be incarcerated in their home countries.

More than 70 suspected pirates are being held at the facility in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa, Alan Cole, counter-piracy program coordinator at the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, told reporters in the city today. Globally, two-thirds of the 950 piracy suspects detained in 17 countries including the U.S., France, India and Kenya have been convicted, while the rest are on, or awaiting trial, Cole said.

“We can find countries to prosecute them, but no one wants non-nationals in their prisons for too long,” Cole said. “We are looking at the regions of Somaliland and Puntland to take back their own nationals.”

Pirates operating off the coast of Somalia carried out 15 of the 16 hijackings at sea this year, according to figures released by the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center on March 24. There are currently 28 seized vessels with 576 hostages held by Somali pirates, the bureau said.

Piracy has flourished off the coast of the Horn of African nation, where a two-decade long war has left the country with no effective government and a moribund economy. Remittances from overseas workers of about $1 billion a year are the country’s main source of revenue, according to the London-based charity World Vision, which runs health, water and education projects in Somalia.

Piracy Cases

The UN has offered to extend a program under which it pays countries in the region to reorganize their justice systems, train legal officers and improve prison conditions to enable them to handle piracy cases.

The detention center in Hargeisa “meets international standards,” providing some of the best prison conditions in the region, Yury Fedotov, executive director of the UNODC, said today. “It could be a model not just for Somaliland, but for the whole region.”

Pirates, who have traditionally treated their captives humanely in expectation of receiving a multi-million dollar ransom for their safe release, have become increasingly violent.

Last month, pirates killed four American hostages aboard their yacht off the coast of Oman, prompting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to highlight the importance of other nations in helping bring stability to Somalia. The U.S. Justice Department charged 13 Somalis and one Yemeni with piracy and kidnapping in connection with the incident. British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler was released by pirates on Nov. 14 following 388 days in captivity after they were hijacked on a yacht en route to Tanzania from the Seychelles.


Piracy trials can’t be held in Somalia because the country doesn’t have a functioning legal system following the ouster of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Somaliland declared independence from Somalia after the fall of Barre. No sovereign state has recognized the region as an independent nation.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga in December urged the international community to support the creation of a dedicated piracy tribunal in a third country, possibly backed by the United Nations, an idea being touted by Russia.

The total cost of piracy, including ransoms, insurance premiums, re-routing ships, security equipment and naval forces was estimated at as much as $12 billion last year, Louisville, Colorado-based One Earth Future Foundation said in January. The average ransom payments to Somali pirate gangs surged to $5.4 million last year, from $150,000 in 2005, the non-profit group says.

“What’s happening on the high seas is a symptom of what’s happening on shore,” Somaliland Interior Minister Mohamed Abdi Gabose said today in Hargeisa. Piracy has flourished through the “failure of the international community to address Somalia.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE