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Missing witnesses stall piracy cases

Tuesday October 12 2010

GIDEON MAUNDU | NATION Eight of the nine suspected pirates after they disembarked from the US warship Princeton at the port of Mombasa.

GIDEON MAUNDU | NATION Eight of the nine suspected pirates after they disembarked from the US warship Princeton at the port of Mombasa.  

By Jeff Davis, [email protected]

Piracy trials are being delayed by witnesses who fail to show up in court, a magistrate has said.

Mombasa chief magistrate Rosemelle Mutoka said prosecuting pirates was “pretty straightforward” and often simpler than other cases.

She said the missing witnesses had stalled the trials of 84 suspected pirates at the Shimo la Tewa Prison.

“They are very easy cases,” Ms Mutoka said.

“The problem is witnesses. Sometimes you have to adjourn a case for up to four times.”

Ms Mutoka was speaking to the new UN special adviser on legal issues related to Somali piracy, Mr Jack Lang, who is visiting Kenya.

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Safety fears cited

She said Europe-based captains of hijacked ships often refused to come to Kenya, citing safety fears.

The chief magistrate challenged Mr Lang to produce the witnesses, saying she would soon close the cases.

“If you bring 10 to 15 witnesses, we can finish this in a week or two,” she said.

Kenya has convicted 43 Somali pirates, sentencing them from five to 20 years in Kenyan prisons.

A new courtroom, the only one in the country where defendants are in an enclosed steel cage to provide a feeling of security to witnesses, has been built at Shimo la Tewa.

Ms Mutoka said the court was also considering taking testimony via video-conference, removing the need for overseas witnesses to travel.

Later, Mr Lang pleaded with Kenya to continue trying the suspects.

“There are concerns about the need for the naval countries to share burden of piracy but were are sure Kenyans will think again about the agreements as we strive to obtain participation of all states,” he said.

Mr Lang was speaking to journalists in Nairobi after meeting Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

He stressed that the UN and other naval states have been supporting Kenya in its anti-piracy efforts.

Mr Lang was confident that the UN will strike a deal with Seychelles which has also been reluctant to handle the pirates.

The UN official was non-committal on whether new agreements would be signed and hinted that the pirates could be jailed in their country.

Meanwhile, despite pronouncements by the Foreign Affairs ministry, nine suspected pirates were handed over to police on Tuesday for prosecution, bringing to 10 the number received in two weeks.

They were brought aboard a US Navy vessel, Princeton.

The Foreign Affairs ministry says agreements with the international community to prosecute suspects in Kenya expired on September 30.

Additional reporting by Gekara Mayaka and Gitonga Marete