A pair of dark eyes peers through a narrow slit in a high green metal gate, watching people waiting to enter. Inside, a guard scans visitors with a hand-held metal detector and bags are searched. Amid much shouting and gesticulating, a man who tries to bring in qat – the ubiquitous chewing narcotic – is bundled out.
This is the so-called pirates prison, a cream-colored fortress, officially opened in November 2010 after a $1.5m (£950,000) refurbishment funded by the UN, to contain the pirates convicted of hijacking at sea off the Horn of Africa.
Although the number of pirate attacks has dropped to their lowest level since 2008, experts say the problem has not gone away. More than 100 attempted hijackings off the coast of east Africa have been foiled so far this year, and dozens of pirates captured – raising the question of what to do with them. None of the countries in the region have been prepared to take responsibility for bandits captured at sea.
Step up the breakaway enclave of Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991 but is not officially recognized, and volunteered its territory in an attempt to enhance its international standing.
The prison holds 313 prisoners, including 17 pirates convicted in the Seychelles and flown to Hargeisa in March. Finding countries willing to prosecute the pirates has also been difficult. Seychelles changed its laws last year to allow pirates captured anywhere beyond its territorial waters to be put on trial, although it has turned down some requests.
The deal to transfer the 17 from Seychelles to Somaliland was signed in London between the leaders of the two territories in February. President James Michel of the Seychelles and President Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo of Somaliland said the agreement was an important step towards combatting piracy.
Inside the Hargeisa prison the atmosphere is relaxed but several of the prisoners complain they have been unjustly convicted.