Seychelles recently took a beating in the media for its allegedly conciliatory attitude towards piracy. Discreet inquiries made by StratPost of sources in governments in the region reveal the issue to be far less simplistic from what has been made out.
Seychelles is a relatively recent player in the piracy problem that has been afflicting the waters of the Red Sea and the western Indian Ocean for the past few years. Their national constraints have made them feel vulnerable and unsure about the steps they should take.
Two incidents occurred that put out the drumbeat of the Seychelles being soft on piracy.
The first relates to the release of around 20 pirates by Seychelles from its jails and repatriation to Somalia. In this case after the jailing of these pirates a few months back, the government found it difficult to prosecute the charges against the accused, especially given the relatively minor role played by them in their capture. Seychelles had initially accepted the pirates enthusiastically, in an effort to show it was on board in the fight against piracy in the region and acting in the crisis, earlier this year.
But the Seychelles has had to grapple with its own compulsions. The boarding and lodging of these guests of the government soon became a nuisance, considering the limited capacity of their jails. The situation was seen with greater apprehension after four convicts escaped prison in April, creating national alarm, with their army being sent on combing operations in the mountains.
At the same time, 3-4 Seychellois were also being held by pirates in Puntland in Somalia, an issue which became quite prominent and over which the Seychelles government was under pressure from their opposition. Not having the money to pay a ransom for them, it would appear the government decided to go in for a prisoner swap, with the official reason for the release of the pirates being an inability to prove the charges against them.
Aware that such a trade may not go down well with other countries, they tried to manage a quiet exchange, trying to get middlemen with contacts in pirate strongholds in Somalia to expedite the affair. But they failed to inform either the Kenyan government or the autonomous authorities in Puntland, about the flight plan of the chartered aircraft that was to carry out the exchange a month back, or the passenger manifest. The result was media coverage of an impounded aircraft with suspected pirates on board and an embarrassed Seychelles government. Britain, the erstwhile colonial power in Seychelles, also expressed its displeasure. Britain has an agreement with Kenya for the detention and prosecution by Kenya of any pirate arrested by the British.
The second incident involves the Seychelles Coast Guard Ship Topaz capturing and then releasing an alleged pirate mother ship along with likely pirates on board. The problem the Seychellois faced here was, the ship was captured after an unsuccessful attack, making it extremely difficult to secure convictions against them. And since the alleged pirate ship’s position was likely to have been located outside the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Seychelles, the buccaneer could always have claimed to be an ordinary fishing vessel, as often happens. And so the ship was released. A Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) of an unknown navy in the region, monitoring the situation, however later put out the line of the Seychelles Coast Guard having captured and released the pirates, reinforcing the view of Seychelles being soft, half-hearted, or dragging its feet against piracy, if not worse.
Seychelles is not the first country to have done this, nor will it be the last. In September 2008, the Royal Danish Naval frigate the HDMS Absalon was forced to release 10 pirates after holding them for six days as the Danish government was unable to find a way to bring them to justice. This came after ample evidence of piracy was found and some of those arrested had even admitted to being pirates. The Danish government was unable to conclude it had the jurisdiction to prosecute them and had then forbidden its navy from detaining any pirates.
In a situation where the victim ship might be flying a flag from one country, owned by a company in another country, carrying a cargo from a third country and a crew and witnesses consisting of many nationalities and suspects from Somalia, Yemen or any other country, the question that then arises is which country will prosecute? While technically, pirates can be tried by any country according to maritime law, it is the difficulties in conducting a trial of such an international character that requires policy decisions by governments to undertake such responsibilities.
While there has been unsubstantiated speculation of the country winking at piracy for the sake of its own nationals for a while, it fails to stand up to the test of logic. Fishing and tourism are the two main industries of the Seychelles. Both industries are dominated by non-Seychellois. If pirates were indeed given a free hand against non-Seychellois, both industries, the mainstay of the country’s economy, would collapse. As it is the country is facing competition from neighbors like Mauritius and Madagascar, who have been trying to entice away these same fishing trawlers and tourism operators. This would clearly be against the interest of the Seychelles.
The Seychellois feel wronged and insulted by such insinuations. The embarrassment over the 20 pirates and the release of the suspected pirate mother ship notwithstanding, they consider it incomprehensible to read from these two incidents, the conclusion that the Seychellois have any understanding with Somali pirates.
Cultural affinities too have a role to play here. Most Seychellois identify themselves more as culturally European than African, irrespective of their political reality and geographical location. Not particularly fond of Somalis, Seychellois have found it rankling to be censured by the British for being in any way close to Somali pirates.
Both Kenya and the Seychelles agreed to hold the trials of pirates captured in the region. At first, this was attractive to the two countries because they wanted to be seen as contributing to anti-piracy efforts in the region and the associated financial assistance.
The website of the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), which along with the European Commission (EC), promotes the prosecution of pirates by Kenya, the Seychelles and Tanzania, says the main elements of its program ‘include legislative review and assistance, support to the police, prosecution and judiciary, the provision of logistics and information technology, witness and trial support, prison repairs and refurbishments, training of prosecution, police, maritime authorities and prison management and officers, and the development and sharing of regional expertise.’
But the legal experts provided by foreign entities that have offered the financial assistance like the EC and the UNODC have their own ideas and want to get into implementing the larger task of reforming the local legal system, to bring it on par with their sanitized standards. Indeed, here some may well point at the statement of the EC/UNODC Counter-Piracy Programme on the ‘key substantial outputs’ it says it has delivered.
There is also opposition from local Somalis and Muslims who feel the holding of Somali pirates in these countries for trial amounts to the creation of another Guantanamo Bay. Lawyers and NGOs, out for publicity and grants, come out in sympathy and support for the pirates being held in these countries.
In one sense, the tiny country of Seychelles acted the way it did, because it was unable to do anything else about its citizens being held in Somalia, unable to effectively prosecute the pirates being held by them for trial and unable to get a clean arrest of confirmed pirates in the surrounding waters.