After a month in solitary confinement, alleged pirate Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse had his day in court Thursday – a brief arraignment at which he pled not guilty to federal charges of participating in the attempted hijacking of the Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia in April.
Looking frail and downcast, Muse, wearing a dark colored smock and trousers over his orange prison garb, stood and made his plea through a translator before U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Preska in Manhattan's federal courthouse at 500 Pearl Street – just across from the federal correctional facility where he has been held since he was flown to New York and transferred from U.S. Navy custody to the FBI on April 20th.
Following the hearing Muse's lawyers said that when all the evidence was presented their client would be exonerated.
"We believe that Mr. Muse will be exonerated," said Federal Public Defender Deirdre von Durnum.
Standing outside the courthouse, Federal Public Defender Fiona Doherty reminded reporters that in its complaint the government noted that Muse had separated himself from the other hijackers of the U.S. flagged Maersk Alabama and attempted to negotiate a solution to the five day standoff during which the ship's captain was held hostage by Muse's cohort.
"Our client was the one trying to find a peaceful resolution," she said.
Muse – whose age is unknown but who is believed by both the government and defense to be a teenager -- was indicted earlier this week on 10 counts including piracy under the law of nations, conspiracy, hostage taking, kidnapping and possession of a machine gun while seizing a ship by force. If convicted of the most serious charge, he faces a mandatory life sentence. The next scheduled court appearance is September 17th.
Somalia's Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Idd Beddel Mohamed, said that his nation did not want to politicize the case and he would not comment on whether it was better to have Muse on trial in the US or in Somalia.
He said that he had confidence in the U.S. legal system, its transparency, and the independence of the defense team representing Muse.
"We want to send our sympathies to the families of the captain and his team," he said. But he also expressed his nation's sympathy for Muse's mother. "She is also a mother" and one whose son is "facing very serious issues."
In jail, Muse has been allowed to keep a Koran with him and there is a clock just outside his cell to guide his prayer times, according to his attorney.
"He has been denied any human contact either by phone or in person except for his attorneys," one of his attorneys, Philip Weinstein said. "Basically he sits in a room 24 hours a day (aside from medical care, showers, attorney visits) he has nothing to do expect look at the walls and pray."
While inmates are routinely segregated for two weeks or so while they undergo a battery of intake tests and examinations including ones to assure the inmate is not suicidal, or suffering from a mental illness, Muse's segregation has been extended for any number of possible reasons -- including concern for his safety, and inability to complete intake procedures due to the difficulty with locating an approved translator. The Federal Bureau of Prisons did not return two calls to discuss those issues.
In Muse's case, his notoriety could well be the reason for his being kept in the SHU (Security Housing Unit), away from other inmates who might want to make a name for themselves by harming him.
Muse's isolation is compounded by his almost complete lack of English language skills, and a lack of familiarity with everything from the cold cuts on the prison menu to the use of a small commissary fund of $40.00 set up by his lawyers to allow him to purchase foods or personal items, or make telephone calls home to his family. Initially, puzzled by the lunch meats, he pushed them to the side, eating only his vegetables or salad.
According to Weinstein, when confronted with the commissary menu, which is in English, despite attempts through a translator to explain to him that he could order tuna fish, or other items, Muse did not, until recently make use of it. But in recent days he has, purchasing peanut butter and a few other items.
Believed by his attorneys to be somewhere between 16 and 20 years of age, Muse has some hair--"almost like peach fuzz" under his lip, but none on the sides of his face, Weinstein, a federal public defender, says.
Right now, based on decisions made at his initial court appearance, Muse is being treated as an adult and the legal proceedings are going forward in open court.
At that appearance he sobbed and showed no evidence of any of the bravado he might have displayed as the pirate alleged to have first boarded the Alabama on April 8th.
Arguments by his attorneys that he should be tried as a youth were not accepted, and Judge Andrew Peck noted conflicting testimony by Muse's father about his children's' ages and Muse's admission in a closed hearing that he had lied about his age to an FBI agent. Muse's attorneys are still seeking witnesses who can help clear up the issue of their clients agent. But that search is hampered by the fact that those witnesses are in Somali, a difficult and lawless place, his attorneys said. The fact that three federal public defenders -- all experienced -- are on Muse's team, is indicative of the complexity and the gravity of the case. The lawyers are faced with travel and budgetary issues and constraints as well as considerations as to the safety of any witness willing to come forward.
A ten count indictment against Muse was unsealed Tuesday charging him with committing piracy, and related offenses including the use of force to hijack the Maersk, threatening its captain with a firearm, possessing a machine gun and holding the captain hostage. A conviction on the top charge of piracy carries a mandatory life sentence. Weinstein and the other two attorneys on Muse's team are exploring whether he was forced into piracy, whether he is a juvenile, what his mental state and age might be, as they begin to construct their client's defense. At this point, while Muse may not understand the U.S. legal system, he does understand the gravity of his situation, and has come to trust that his lawyers work for him, and not for the government.
"He understands it's serious. He understands it is going to take some time to play out," Weinstein said.
The captain held hostage by Muse and his cohorts, Richard Phillips, was freed from the pirates' grasp when U.S. Navy SEAL snipers shot operating from the fantail of a destroyer ended a five day standoff by cutting down three pirates who had held the captain in one of the Maersk Alabama's covered lifeboats. Muse was aboard the destroyer at the time, having surrendered earlier in the day.
Detained for a time by the U.S. Navy, Muse was transferred to New York after a decision was made to try him in the United States.
Wounded during the alleged piracy, Muse now requires an operation to his hand which may have a severed tendon or nerve. But he does not want to have the operation until he has spoken to his mother. He has not yet been able to accomplish that, his lawyer said.
Muse has no books or periodicals to help him while away the time, largely because it has been difficult for his lawyers to locate a publisher of Somali material -- and prison rules require books and periodicals to be shipped directly from the publisher. Weinstein says that at this point they may have located two Somali language newspapers and will see if they can arrange for one of them to be delivered. In the meantime, Muse, is learning English words and phrases, adding to the small stock he picked up along the coast of Somalia.