Page last updated at 10:39 GMT, Saturday, 25 June 2011 11:39 UK

Meeting a Somali pirate in Hargeisa prison

Farah Ismael Elih

By Mary Harper
BBC News, Somaliland

When Somalian pirates are caught there is often nowhere to try them, as Somalia itself has little effective central government. But some have been tried and jailed in the breakaway territory of Somaliland.

"You cannot go and see the pirates," said the commander of the prison.

"They are far too dangerous. And anyway, they are fed up with journalists who, they say, treat this prison as if it was a pirate museum.

the BBC's Mary Harper shaking hands with Farah Ismael Elih
Farah Ismael Elih made no apologies for what he had done

"No. No. And no again."

"Maybe you could bring a pirate out of his cell to speak to me?" I suggested.

After a long pause and a resigned shrug, the commander agreed.

He led me through sandy courtyards where a few men strolled about in bright blue prison uniforms.

We stopped to chat to them.

One was in for fighting with his parents, another for grievous bodily harm.

We then walked past the cells - there were 10 men in each, their faces glistening with sweat in the darkness - through various heavy doors and long corridors to a room almost completely filled by a big, glossy table.

The commander told me to sit down and wait.

People wandered in and out, some sitting down on the chairs around the table.

After sitting silently for quite some time, I asked when the pirate was coming.

'Mild face'

"He's here already," someone said, gesturing casually towards a man in a white skull cap, sitting at the other side of the table.

I was surprised, as I had expected someone to be brought in in handcuffs and chains. This man was one of those who had just wandered in and sat down.

I said I needed to be nearer to him, so that I could record his voice. He came over and sat right next to me.

Although he had a mild face and twinkling eyes, if he had wanted to, he could have hit me with very little difficulty.

He told me his name was Farah Ismael Elih, that he was 48 years old and that he came from the port town of Bossasso.

He sprawled back in his chair, and seemed very relaxed. He was also rather well-dressed.

He wore bright red flip flops and a sarong around his waist. His long-sleeved shirt was unwrinkled and he had a small white towel rolled up and wrapped rakishly around his neck.

His beard was quite neat. His two front teeth were white. The rest were black.

I switched on my recording machine and started the interview.


Farah Ismael Elih made no apologies for what he had done, and explained how unlucky he had been to be caught on his first ever pirate trip.

He appealed to all Somali pirates to increase their work

He said he had decided to change jobs from fishing to piracy because foreign trawlers had plundered all the fish in Somali waters.

He told me how, with the greatest of ease, he had bought a speedboat, an AK-47 rifle and a bazooka from a local market.

He had been sentenced to 15 years in jail, reduced to six on appeal.

He had already spent three years inside, and had no idea where his wife or children were. There had been no contact.

When I had finished the interview, he sat back in his chair and gave me a long look.

"Now", he said, "it is time for ME to interview YOU."

This really threw me. I knew the correct response would be to decline politely, saying that it was my job as the journalist to do the interviewing.

But something inside me told me to give him a chance.

Mary Harper speaking with prisoners and a prison commander

Like a true pro, he fired off his questions. The easy ones first.

"What is your name?"

"Where do you come from?"

"Are you really a journalist?"

Then he went in for the attack. "What do you really expect you're going to get from interviewing me?

"What do you want out of it? What's the point?"

My mind went blank. I really had to think about that one. Good question.

I told him I had done a lot of reporting on Somali piracy and I wanted to understand why the pirates do what they do.

I said the media tends to tell the same stories about the pirates and I wanted to try to do something a bit different, to find out a little bit more.

Pirate economy

Farah Ismael Elih then launched into a passionate speech, saying he appealed to all Somali pirates to increase their work, to hijack more ships until the international community confiscated all the illegal trawlers.

I have spoken to a fair number of Somali pirates over the past few years, and they almost always justify their actions by blaming rapacious foreign trawlers.

However, evidence suggests that an increasing number of common criminals are becoming pirates because of the potentially huge rewards.

Ransoms of millions of dollars have been paid out for the release of ships and their crew - and it is not only former fishermen who are reaping the benefits.

A whole pirate economy has developed, with thousands of people involved, including negotiators, insurers, security consultants and even cooks for the hostages all taking their share.

But it is only some of those like Farah Ismael Elih - the people who take to the sea in their tiny speedboats - who end up behind bars.

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