VICTORIA, Seychelles – With mouths shut and eyes downcast, a group of Somali men and boys sat around a table in the police station in Victoria, the Seychelles' capital city on the island of Mahé.
A police officer un-cuffed the 11 prisoners, some of whom were barefoot, and left the room as their court-appointed lawyer explained that they faced seven years to life in prison on charges of piracy and terrorism.
"Make no mistake, you are facing some very, very, very serious charges," defense lawyer Anthony Juliette said through an interpreter flown in from Kenya.
"The evidence against you is quite overwhelming," said Juliette, while promising to do everything in his power to fight the charges against them.
It isn't every day I find myself in a room full of alleged pirates. But that is where I was recently in the Seychelles, an archipelago made of 115 tropical islands in the Indian Ocean, about 900 miles off the east coast of Africa.
The group I was sitting with is accused of firing on a Seychellois coast guard ship before being captured along with AK-47s, a global positioning device and a rocket-propelled grenade. The men and boys, some as young as 14, claimed to be fishermen, but were found without a line, fish or bait, according to Seychelles' Coast Guard.
With the world's navies squeezing Somali pirates out of the Gulf of Aden, their recent hunting grounds, the bandits have begun targeting shipping in the vast Indian Ocean.
As a result, the Seychelles, long a vacation destination for the world's beautiful and rich and also home to a sizeable tuna fishing industry, has recently found itself at the center of the global battle on piracy.
In February 2009, pirates seized the ship "Serenity" with Seychellois citizens Gilbert Victor, Conrad Andre and Robin Samson aboard. The men were released after seven months, but that was not the last incident to strike the archipelago's waters.
|Courtesy Seychelles government|
|Gilbert Victor, a Seychelles citizen who was on a ship that was seized by pirates and held captive for seven months, is embraced after his release.|
In October, Paul Chandler and his wife Rachel, both of Kent, England, were captured as their yacht sailed from the Seychelles to Tanzania. The hostage-takers initially demanded $7 million, a vast amount for the middle class family, relatives countered. The figure has reportedly gone down to $2 million, but the Chandlers are still captive.
But pirates prefer to hunt larger prey, and have been known to hijack oil tankers and cargo ships carrying aid. And while few Western hostages have been killed, pirates have been known to simply throw Filipino and Chinese sailors overboard because their countries' governments usually refuse to pay ransoms.
The growing high-seas banditry is a blow to Seychelles' economy, and piracy is cited as one of the major reasons for last year's 30 percent fall in port activity, Srdjana Janosevic, the Seychelles presidential spokeswoman said.
So the Seychelles has had to appeal to mightier countries for aid. In the last six months, the government signed agreements allowing ships and planes from NATO, the European Union and the United States to patrol its waters.
The help may have paid off on Dec. 5 when a NATO spy plane spotted three boats allegedly carrying the men and boys I sat with more than a month later in the Victoria police station.
|F. Brinley Bruton / msnbc.com|
|A group of alleged Somali pirates listen to their lawyer during a meeting in Victoria, Seychelles.|
Trying to combat an increasingly 'attractive option'
Their trial, which is expected to begin on Monday, March 15, is the first case to be brought against pirates in this small nation. It is unlikely to be the last.
"There is a definite preference from naval states policing this area for pirates to be tried and incarcerated in the region, and that means Kenya and Seychelles at the moment," said Roger Middleton, a researcher specializing in the Horn of Africa at Chatham House, a London think tank. "[Western countries] are nervous about bringing hundreds of Somalis into Europe and having them claim asylum."
The Seychelles says it is committed to doing its part.
"Everybody has to put in their effort to combat the scourge of piracy," said the country's Attorney General Ronny Govinden. "We want this trial to be a deterrent to the potential criminals."
But even if the Seychelles and Kenya, which holds about 100 alleged pirates, step up to the plate, it is hard to see how this and the heavy naval presence in the area will stamp-out a problem stemming from Somalia, a failed state about hundreds of miles away.
"All the money, all the ships being spent trying to stop these boys of 14, 15, that could be spent on making sure they stay on land," the court-appointed interpreter said to me shaking his head.
With an ongoing civil war, severe drought, collapsed economy and no functioning government, the pirates are one of Somalia's only exports. Currently, these high-seas bandits hold seven major vessels and about 160 crew members hostage, according to State Department numbers.
"There are massive problems with unemployment (in Somalia), so the option for most young men is to join some militia or some kind of government-ish kind of force," Chatham House's Middleton said.
"So piracy seems like an attractive option. You can make about $10,000 from being a pirate foot soldier, while a normal guy in Somalia makes $600 a year," he said.
Juliette, the Somalis' lawyer, believes that the international community has failed in its obligation to try and make peace in the Horn of Africa, and is now transferring the burden onto the tiny Seychelles.
"There is a big international concern regarding piracy around the world so a lot of eyes are watching … The Seychelles government will want to be seen to be doing a lot," Juliette told his clients, who mainly looked distracted and nervous.
One of the Somalis, a young man with a wispy beard who appeared to speak on behalf of the group, repeatedly said that all of them were innocent fishermen and had been badly beaten by the Coast Guard when they were picked up.
"We never saw the weapons until we were in custody," the man said through the interpreter. "We didn't even think we were in the Seychelles when we were caught."
"If you are fishermen, I want lines, hooks, bait," he said. "You prove you were fishing, you prove that you were there for a legitimate reason."