NAIROBI (Reuters) - Somalia's president has shielded a top pirate leader from arrest by issuing him a diplomatic passport, according to a United Nations investigation which criticizes the "climate of impunity" enjoyed by pirate kingpins in Somalia and abroad.
The U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia said in a report to the Security Council, seen by Reuters, that senior pirate leaders were benefitting from high level protection from Somali authorities and were not being sufficiently targeted for arrest or sanction by international authorities.
The Group said it had obtained evidence a diplomatic passport had been provided "with the authorization of Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed" to pirate leader Mohamed Abdi Hassan "Afweyne", who presented it to authorities in Malaysia on a trip there in April.
Questioned by Malaysian immigration, Afweyne provided a document issued by the Somali presidency stating he was involved in counter-piracy activities, the report said. It said that Somalia's President Ahmed had told the Group the passport was "one of several inducements" for Afweyne aimed at obtaining the dismantling of his pirate network.
In a July 12 letter to the Chairman of the Security Council's Sanctions Committee, obtained by Reuters, Ahmed called the contents of the Monitoring Group's report "one-sided".
The letter said the principal author of the U.N. report, whom it did not name, "seems hell bent on soiling the good names of private members of the Somali people by throwing at them unsubstantiated allegations".
Somali government officials in Mogadishu could not be reached for comment.
The U.N. report has also riled the authorities in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, who are criticized for failing to arrest well-known senior pirate leaders, in spite of a counter-piracy campaign that has reportedly resulted in the arrest of hundreds of low-level pirates.
The report said that only one Puntland based pirate leader, Abshir Boyah, had been arrested by the Puntland authorities but said his jail sentence of only five years contrasted sharply with terms of up to 20 years given to junior pirate figures.
Successful Somali pirate hijackings have been declining steadily since 2010, partly the result of intensive international naval operations and the use of private security on maritime vessels, but pirate leaders are adapting and diversifying into new businesses, the U.N. report said.
Confirming this trend, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said on Monday that tougher action by international navies and the use of private armed guards on ships have more than halved the number of Somali pirate attacks in the first half of 2012.
Last year, Somali piracy in the busy shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden and the northwestern Indian Ocean netted $160 million, and cost the world economy some $7 billion, according to the American One Earth Future foundation.
The U.N. report said pirate leaders are now increasingly involved in land-based kidnap for ransom of foreign tourists and aid workers in northern Kenya and Somalia, as well as selling services as counter-piracy experts and consultants in ransom negotiations, and exploring "new types of criminal activity".
"This evolution of the piracy business model is being driven largely by members of the Somali diaspora, whose foreign language skills and bank accounts are all valuable assets," it said.
U.N. officials say the Monitoring Group has submitted two confidential cases to the Security Council documenting the flow of piracy proceeds via international accounts and singling out a Somali businessman with British citizenship who is part of a piracy ring but who also runs a counter-piracy business.
The Group said that in spite of three international task forces and efforts by a dozen national governments in maritime counter-piracy efforts, serious legal obstacles remain that "impede the prosecution and sanctioning of pirate leaders and kingpins".
Out of 125 registered hijacking cases since December 2008 which have come under the jurisdiction of 83 different countries, not more than 10 governments have actually embarked on broader investigations into Somali pirate networks, the report said.
"As a result, the international community is investing enormous resources to pursue and punish those at the bottom of the piracy pyramid ... while virtually guaranteeing impunity for those at the top of the piracy pyramid who bear the greatest responsibility and profit the most," it said.
Confusion over whether ransom payments and drop-offs of ransoms by private security companies constitute illegal activity has also prompted Britain to block the U.N. Security Council from applying financial sanctions against senior pirate leaders since 2010, the report said.
With pirate leaders left untouched by U.N. sanctions, payments to them would not be considered illegal and therefore private security companies could pay out ransom fees without fear of violating sanctions, sources at the U.N. said.
The British blocking of Security Council proposals to designate senior Somali pirate leaders for targeted sanctions was "apparently at the behest of powerful domestic interests in shipping, crisis and risk management consultancies, maritime law and insurance and private maritime security companies who indirectly derive significant profits from the Somali piracy phenomenon," the report said.
Asked for comment, a Foreign Office spokesperson in London told Reuters the British government maintained a clear policy of not making or facilitating "substantive concessions to hostage takers, including the payment of ransoms".
The spokesperson said Britain had since April 2010 maintained "a technical hold" on proposals in the U.N. Sanctions Committee to designate pirate leaders for sanctions "as it is necessary to better understand the potential unintended consequences of using Sanctions, which include implications for the families of U.K. nationals captured by pirates".
British Prime Minister David Cameron had set up a task force to look into piracy kidnap for ransom in more detail, including the option of U.N. sanctions. The task force would make recommendations by the end of the year, the Foreign Office said.
The U.N. report said the current situation had discouraged private security companies from sharing information on who they had paid money to, putting a brake on international investigations into piracy.
The Monitoring Group has asked the Security Council to explicitly clarify that ransom payments to Somali pirates could not be considered an offence that would be sanctioned.
Such a move would allow counter-piracy businesses in the U.K. to share information on ransom payments they make, without the fear those payments could expose them to future prosecutions, the report said.
The Foreign Office spokesperson said Britain was working with international partners to establish a Regional Anti-Piracy Prosecution and Intelligence Coordination Centre (RAPPICC) in the Seychelles, which would target pirate kingpins.
Additional reporting by Nairobi bureau and Matthew Falloon in London; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Louise Ireland