MOMBASSA, Kenya – Shabbily dressed and solemn, 18 Somali men nabbed at sea and hauled ashore by European navies crowded into a Mombassa courthouse Thursday to face piracy charges that could put them behind bars for life.
Kenya appeared to be ramping up prosecutions amid talk of establishing an international piracy tribunal in the country that borders Somalia, the lawless epicenter of a flourishing pirate industry off the Horn of Africa.
The court hearings also came the same week the United States held its the first piracy trial in over a century, trying a skinny Somali teenager for the attack on the American cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama.
At the hearing in Mombassa, 11 Somali men wore faded sarongs, old jackets and cheap sandals. Two had no shoes. All had solemn expressions.
It was the first court appearance for the men tracked down by French commandos and seized April 14 in a pre-dawn raid as they ate breakfast in their skiffs in waters off Somalia. The pirate suspects had been marched off a French frigate Wednesday and handed over to authorities in the Kenyan port city of Mombassa.
The French had also handed over the pirates' captured equipment: two skiffs, three grappling hooks, four rusty assault rifles, two bags of bullets and a ladder.
Magistrate Catherine Mwangi adjourned their case until a bail hearing May 27. They will remain in a Mombassa jail until then. She also demanded that officials give the men fresh clothing for their bail hearing.
"I'm giving you an order that these people be dressed properly," Mwangi told court officials.
Next door, seven other suspected pirates listened to witnesses testify against them. German sailors had captured the men in late March after they reportedly attacked a German naval supply ship.
Kenya is also holding another trial currently involving pirate suspects handed over by Britain.
In other efforts to stamp out piracy in Somalia, which has not had an effective central government since 1991, donors at a conference in Brussels pledged over $250 million Thursday to improve the country's internal security.
Experts believe the underlying causes of piracy — unemployment, few options and insecurity on land — drive young men into a life of seafaring crime.
Under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea, any country can try a piracy case irrespective of the pirates' nationalities or the vessel they hijacked. Most countries with navies patrolling off the coast of Somalia have ratified the convention, as has Kenya, but the U.S. has not.
Legal experts said the concept of an international piracy tribunal appeared to be gaining traction.
"Kenya has applied to have a center to fight against piracy here in Mombassa," government spokesman Alfred Mutua acknowledged Thursday.
Kenya has laid the groundwork for such a tribunal by striking deals with the European Union and the United States that allows it to try suspected pirates captured by navies from those countries. The emphasis on Kenya as a possible venue reflects many nations' fear that convicted pirates might stay put after getting out of prison.
"There is some leverage at the moment to do more against piracy at an international level so I wouldn't rule out a tribunal," said Thomas Unger of the International Center for Transitional Justice in Brussels, Belgium.
"We will see much more cooperation between states on this issue in coming years — extraditing alleged criminals or domestically prosecuting them," he predicted.
Pirates have been tried in Kenya before — 10 Somali pirates were sentenced in November 2006 to seven years in prison after the U.S. Navy captured them.
But there are doubts that Kenya can handle the costly and complicated task of trying cases that emerge from the exploding piracy crisis in the Indian Ocean, for the country is struggling with its own huge backlog of about 800,000 criminal and civil cases.
Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, hailed the pirate prosecutions in Kenya. He said trials of pirates caught in the Malacca Strait, between Indonesia and Malaysia, were partially effective in ending piracy there but aggressive patrols were the more decisive factor.
"It is a good deterrent to show that governments are serious and that those who commit criminal activities will be punished," he said.
However, he urged the militaries patrolling the Gulf of Aden to follow standard practices. Some, like the Canadians, have chased pirates only to disarm them and then set them loose again, due to domestic laws.
In New York on Tuesday, Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse of Somalia appeared in court, charged with allegedly participating in a brazen April 8 attack on the U.S-flagged Maersk Alabama. He was charged with piracy, discharging a firearm, conspiring to commit hostage-taking and brandishing a firearm — charges that could add up to life in jail for the baby-faced, 5-foot-2 teenager.
Not everyone supports bringing the seafaring bandits to Kenya. In Mombassa, dock worker Billy Kalaghe gestured at the ships crowding the busy port.
"It might be creating problems in Kenya," he said. "The pirates are not working alone, they are part of a syndicate. And they are in our court and our jails."