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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 phone calls. (Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail)
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 phone calls. (Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail)

Prison life for Somali pirates: sewing, gardening and a little basketball Add to ...

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.

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 yard.

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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 verdicts.

“Life in this prison is not good,” Mr. Abtidon said. “We are requesting you to convey the message that our rights were neglected.”

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.

Two 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.

He 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.

While 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.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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