Victoria, Seychelles – Montagne Possé is a prison with a stunning view. It is not often that those words fit well in the same sentence, but, after all, this is Mahe Island in the Indian Ocean, and the prison blocks sit high up on a hillside overlooking a green canopy of trees sliding down into an azure coral ocean.
There are 500 prisoners here, among them more than 100 Somalis either awaiting trial for piracy or already serving their sentences. They are dressed in Guantanamo-orange prisoner uniforms, busy working on an outer wall on the edge of the compound.
Montagne prison offers its inmates a dramatic view
We are told we cannot interview them, but manage through a translator to speak to one of them known as “the captain”. He had a big smile on his face, and said in the little English that he knew: “Al Jazeera is good.”
He is not a pirate, he said, just a fisherman from Mogadishu. According to the Seychelles authorities, “Captain” was captured in 2010 with around ten others “in the act of piracy”.
There are no more details. All we are told is that a Seychelles court found him guilty and sentenced him to six years in jail. That is a relatively short term, we are told. “The average sentence ranges from between ten and 20 [years], depending on the severity of the crime,” the prison’s British deputy-superintendent Will Thurbin told Al Jazeera.
The Seychelles is one of the few countries in the world that prosecutes and imprisons pirates. At a conference on Somalia in London in February, world leaders talked about making sure pirates were not simply captured and then released.
Seychelles Foreign Minister Jean-Paul Adam, a young, dynamic, British-educated politician, is tipped for great things, and he has some strong views on what the world should be doing.
“There has to be development in Somalia, but also a clear message to end the impunity of piracy,” he said. “The problem is still tolerated; the world almost seems willing to pay the cost of piracy. We are willing to pay higher insurance for private security, therefore the cycle continues.”
He estimated that the Seychelles had lost four per cent of its GDP due to piracy. “We need to show very clearly: piracy is a crime akin to the role the mafia played in many developed economies.”
It is “the cartels, international in nature”, behind this lucrative business, he said, not the fisherman who become the foot soldiers.
“We need to show very clearly: piracy is a crime akin to the role the mafia played in many developed economies.”
– Seychelles Foreign Minister Jean-Paul Adam
The Seychelles is an ocean state, with only 400 square kilometres of land. The rest of its territory is made up of stretches of water three times the size of South Africa. And some of the world’s most important shipping routes pass through these seas.
Nowadays, fewer vessels are willing to take the risk. The ships that do pay higher insurance premiums, and, as a consequence, the goods they have on board also cost more. For the Seychelles, a nation trying to develop, higher fuel prices and an increase in the cost of living is combining to have a crippling effect.
Tourism and fishing are crucial here. But cruise ships no longer stop here, and Seychellois fishermen are among the captives being held 1,500 kilometres away in Somalia. Tourism Minister Alain St Ange summed it up: “Being an island of Africa, we follow what happens in Kenya, and often we suffer with them. We say this is not a Kenya or Seychelles problem; this is a world problem, and the world must rally to eradicate this.”
World leaders have discussed piracy at conferences in London, Istanbul and now Dubai. Their focus has been on a military solution, with warships patrolling the region acting as a deterrent.
Nevertheless, most experts agree the long-term solution is in Somalia. Piracy is a symptom of a bigger problem: because of Somalia’s poverty and lack of an effective government, young men will risk it all to ride the high seas in search of a cut of this multi-million-dollar business.