U.N. legal adviser warns that gangs are operating with impunity and becoming bolder because of weak efforts to prosecute them.

Somali pirates are fast becoming “the masters of the Indian Ocean,” with foreign navies forced by legal constraints to release nine out of every 10 they detain, according to a U.N. envoy.

Jack Lang, the U.N.'s top legal adviser on maritime piracy, has told the Security Council that special courts should be urgently established in northern Somalia and Tanzania to try suspected Somali hijackers and break the present cycle of impunity. Currently there are very few countries that are prepared to hold and prosecute captured pirates, while lawlessness in the main part of Somalia makes trials there almost next to impossible.

The navies' “catch and release” policy is one reason attacks on ships off the Horn of Africa reached record levels last year despite the presence of several dozen foreign warships.

Ransom paid

At least 49 vessels were hijacked off Somalia in 2010 according to the International Maritime Bureau, with 1,016 foreign sailors taken hostage. Individual ransom payments routinely run into millions of dollars, while crew members are being detained for ever longer periods, sometimes up to a year.

On January 25, a German shipping line asked for help after Somali pirates seized one of its cargo ships and its 12-strong crew in the Indian Ocean. The owners of the “Beluga Nomination,” based in Bremen, said the boat had been captured on January 22 north of the Seychelles, “far away from the internationally defined zone of high risk at the Horn of Africa.”

Situation is worsening

After two days aboard, the pirates managed to break into the ship's control room and steer the 132-metre vessel west towards the Somali coast, the firm said.

Noting that the pirates had also dramatically increased their range — up to 1,600km east of Somalia and as far south as the Mozambique channel — Lang admitted the situation was “worsening” and the pirates were winning.

“These are 1,500 people [pirates] who are defying the world, defying the U.N. We must act now, quickly and firmly,” said Lang, a former French government minister.

Countries such as Kenya have previously held Somalis captured by foreign navies and placed them on trial. But with its legal system already overloaded, the government is reluctant to take any more, and all piracy cases are on hold anyway after a Kenyan judge ruled the country had no jurisdiction to try them. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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