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Landmark Kenya ruling could see dozens of Somali pirates set free

In a blow to efforts to combat Somali pirates, a senior Kenyan judge said Tuesday that courts here have no power to prosecute crimes that took place outside Kenya’s territorial waters.

British Royal Marines and sailors from the Royal Navy Type 23 frigate HMS Montrose intercept a pirate gang in the Somali basin, Oct. 14.

Terry Sewaqrd/MoD/Crown Copyright/Reuters

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International efforts to prosecute Somali pirates have hit a major snag that could see nearly 70 suspected pirates walk free from prison.

In a landmark ruling Tuesday, a senior Kenyan judge said that courts here have no power to prosecute crimes that took place outside Kenya’s territorial waters.

Jurisdiction has also been cited by Western countries as a key reason why they can't try Somali pirates that their navies have captured during international anti-piracy missions. And, because war-ravaged Somalia has no functioning systems to carry out its own trials, neighboring Kenya has been leading international legal actions against pirates.

But Tuesday's ruling now throws that in doubt.

“It is a significant setback,” says Alan Cole, anti-piracy coordinator for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the part-US funded bureau spearheading pirate prosecutions in East Africa.

Nine suspected pirates released

So far, international navies patrolling the Gulf of Aden and the waters off Somalia have sent 136 pirates to Kenya for trial.

It is the case of nine of them, arrested in March 2009 by the German Navy with help from US helicopters, that led to Tuesday’s ruling, from Mohamed Ibrahim, one of Kenya’s most senior judges.

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