The 11 Somali men, accused in a pirate attack on a Liberian freighter, filed slowly into the wood-paneled court. The magistrate took one look at their dingy shirts, jackets and sarongs — two were barefoot — and ordered a court official to make sure they were "dressed properly" for their next appearance.
Amid proposals for an international tribunal to tackle piracy, Kenya is implementing agreements with the European Union and the United States by putting the bandits on trial, even if they are caught on the high seas by other nations and have not attacked Kenyan interests.
Thursday's hearing was the first court appearance for the men who were tracked down by French commandos and seized April 15 from their skiffs in waters off Somalia, the lawless epicenter of the flourishing pirate industry off the Horn of Africa.
The pirate suspects had been marched off a French frigate Wednesday and handed over to authorities in this Kenyan port city.
Magistrate Catherine Mwangi adjourned their case until a bail hearing May 27. They will remain in a Mombasa jail until then. She also demanded that officials give the men fresh clothing for their bail hearing.
"I'm giving you an order that these people be dressed properly," Mwangi told court officials.
The defendants solemnly listened to a court-provided Somali translator. At one point, one man briefly put an arm round his neighbor's shoulder and gave him a reassuring squeeze.
Defense lawyer Francis Kadima insisted his clients were innocent fishermen detained by mistake. They had no fishing lines, nets or hooks when they were captured, but the French handed over evidence they did find: two skiffs, three grappling hooks, four rusty assault rifles, two bags of bullets and a ladder.
In courtroom next door, witnesses testified against seven other suspected pirates in matching blue overalls. German sailors captured the men last month after they reportedly attacked a German naval supply ship.
Kenya is also holding another trial involving pirate suspects handed over by Britain.
Prosecuting Somali pirates is seen by Kenya as a way to burnish its image internationally at a time when the government is facing criticism over corruption and political violence.
A U.S. court this week brought its first piracy charges in more than a century. Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse of Somalia appeared Tuesday in New York charged with participating in an April 8 attack on the Maersk Alabama. He was charged with piracy, discharging a firearm, conspiring to commit hostage-taking and brandishing a firearm — charges that could add up to life in jail for the baby-faced, 5-foot-2 teenager.
Western nations are often reluctant to try Somali suspects who may then try to claim asylum, but Kenya has a successful track record of pirate prosecutions: 10 pirates handed over by U.S. forces in 2006 are serving seven-year terms.
But experts believe the threat of prosecution is unlikely to deter young men from a life of seafaring crime as long Somalia remains violent, poor and unstable.
"The possibility of being caught is so low and the economic incentive is so high the pirates will continue to engage in these practices. Even if they are caught, the potential for bringing legal processes against them is very low," said Peter Chalk, a piracy expert at the U.S. Rand Corp. think tank.
Some legal experts said the idea of an international piracy tribunal appeared to be gaining traction.
Government spokesman Alfred Mutua said Thursday that Kenya had applied to open an anti-piracy center in Mombasa.
The country's existing anti-piracy laws have laid the groundwork for such a tribunal, strengthened by the deals with the U.S. and the EU.
But there are doubts Kenya can handle the costly and complicated task of trying cases that emerge from the exploding piracy crisis in the Indian Ocean, for the country is struggling with its own huge backlog of about 800,000 criminal and civil cases.
Chalk said the idea sounded like "Kenya trying to extract a few more foreign assistance dollars out of its primary donors."
If a piracy tribunal was established, he pointed out, then it should deal with cases from all over the world, not just the Horn of Africa.
Few believe the courts alone will provide a solution, although most experts hail the prosecutions as an important step in fighting piracy.
Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, said trials of pirates caught in the Malacca Strait, between Indonesia and Malaysia, were partially effective in ending piracy there but aggressive patrols were the more decisive factor.
"It is a good deterrent to show that governments are serious and that those who commit criminal activities will be punished," he said.
In other efforts to stamp out piracy, donors at a conference in Brussels pledged more than $250 million Thursday to improve internal security in Somalia, which has not had an effective central government since 1991. Experts believe unemployment, few options and lack of security on land drive young men into a life of seafaring crime.