Two convicted Somali pirates,
Mawlid Ahmed Abtidon, 25, right, and Abdi Fatah Ahmed Abdullah, 29,
complained about a shortage of prison food and the absence of promised
(Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail)
This is how it ends for a Somali pirate: not with the bang of a
rifle, but with a quiet fadeout into a sewing class, a vegetable garden
and a basketball court.
Saturday, May 25, 2013
At least 34 convicted pirates are locked
away in the remote city of Hargeisa, capital of the self-declared nation
of Somaliland, where the United Nations is trying to teach them useful
trades: tailoring, welding, brick-making, computer skills and gardening.
In their leisure time, the pirates play basketball in the dusty prison
Somalia’s pirates were once the scourge of the seas, holding more
than 1,200 hostages in 2011 and inflicting $18-billion in damage to the
world economy. But over the past year, a massive European-led naval
operation, combined with armed guards on cargo ships, has foiled almost
every hijacking attempt by Somali pirates.
Today the number of
pirate attacks is down sharply – but the dilemma now is what to do with
the convicted pirates, who have become a diplomatic bargaining chip and a
source of government wrangling.
The pirate prisoners – who
continue to deny their guilt, insisting they were “just fishing” when
they were captured near the Seychelles – agreed to be transferred to
Hargeisa’s prison because it has Somali guards and a familiar language
and culture. But now they say the prison conditions are much worse than
in the Seychelles.
Somaliland prison officials complain bitterly
about a lack of financial support from the UN Office of Drugs and Crime
(UNODC), which had promised to help provide food, medicine and other
basic support for the convicted pirates. The budget shortfall is as much
as $72,000 annually, the prison officials say.
Two of the
pirates, 25-year-old Mawlid Ahmed Abtidon and 29-year-old Abdi Fatah
Ahmed Abdullah, lounge casually in the office of the prison commander as
they field questions from The Globe and Mail. They complain about the
shortage of prison food and the absence of promised phone calls to their
families in Mogadishu, although both appeared well-fed and healthy.
They also say that they were never allowed to appeal their trial
“Life in this prison is not good,” Mr. Abtidon said. “We
are requesting you to convey the message that our rights were
Most of the 34 pirates here, who are serving prison
terms of up to 25 years, were previously held in the Seychelles, close
to where they were captured in 2009 and 2010. Several other pirates are
being held in other Somaliland prisons. The breakaway region in northern
Somalia agreed to accept the pirates as a gesture of international
co-operation – and unofficially in hopes of winning diplomatic
recognition for its independence.
Although it is an oasis of peace
and democracy in the Horn of Africa, the enclave of Somaliland has
failed to gain any international diplomatic recognition so far. To
bolster its cause, Somaliland has agreed to accept up to 60 pirate
prisoners – a valuable offer to the UN, since most countries are
unwilling to accept the pirates, and the prisons in southern and central
Somalia are not considered secure enough to hold the pirates safely.
agencies of the United Nations spent a reported $1.5-million to
complete the construction of the Hargeisa prison in 2011 so that it
could house the pirates. But now the UN is accused of breaking its
promises to support the pirates.
“When I hear the word ‘UNODC,’ it
makes me angry,” said Abdullahi Dahir, a senior official in
Somaliland’s prisons agency. “The UNODC is failing to provide basic
needs for those who were transferred from the Seychelles and those who
were captured here.”
Current spending by the Somaliland government
is only $1.20 a day for food and medicine for each prisoner, the UN
acknowledges, but it insists it is working on a plan to provide more of
these supplies to the prison. “The process is under way to deliver these
items in the near future,” one UN official said in an e-mail.
said the UNODC is encountering difficulty in the “delivery and storage”
of sheep, beans and oil to supplement the prison food.
The UN also
acknowledges that most of the pirates have not been allowed any phone
calls to their families, although it blames the Somaliland government
for this decision.
The pirates are among 409 inmates at the
Hargeisa prison. The prison commander refused to allow photos of the
conditions in the cells, but he allowed a brief visit, showing that the
cells are crowded, although each prisoner has a bunk bed.
officials squabble over their food and medicine, the pirates say they
should be transferred to a prison in Mogadishu, close to their families.
They say they haven’t talked to their families since they were
transferred to Somaliland.
In the meantime, the pirates are kept
busy with the UN’s vocational job programs at the prison. They weld
chairs for an orphanage. They make bricks for the construction of a
government ministry. And they build bunk beds for the next group of
arriving pirates from the Seychelles.